WHAT IS PROCESSED FOOD?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

Although many of us don’t exactly know what it means, we’ve come to associate the term “processed food” as something negative.  Generally speaking, that assumption would be true. Processed food has a huge role in the American health epidemic. But processed food isn’t inherently bad. Most food is processed, in the sense that you take it from its whole form and make it safe for consumption. This could be as simple as peeling a fruit or chopping an apple. The reason we have a health crisis has to do with the amount of processing food companies put into the products that they make. The problem is that the more you process a food, the more it loses its nutritional value and health benefits. An estimated 60 to 70% of the American food supply is ultra-processed, in the sense that it has been so heavily altered that it resembles nothing of real food anymore. These changes happen knowingly and deliberately, often by major food companies whose primary motivation is greed. Even when it means causing chronic disease in the general population.  If we’re not intentional about what we eat and educate ourselves about processed food, then we will likely (unknowingly) fall victim to ingesting harmful chemicals on a regular basis. So how does this all work? Let’s begin.

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HOW FOOD IS CLASSIFIED

In recent years, researchers and nutritionists have developed various methods to classify the different levels of processed food. Without getting into the technicals, they all essentially get at the same idea. Here is a summary of the four primary categories: 
    • Unprocessed: These are single ingredient foods and beverages, that have undergone either no amount or a very slight amount of modification. Think of an apple, banana, egg or chicken breast in its full form. Unprocessed foods have all the naturally beneficial nutrients still in-tact.
    • Minimally Processed: Still single ingredient foods, but have undergone some form of processing. Something like whole-grain flour or peanut butter would fall into this category. Some nutrients have been stripped away, but most largely remain intact.
    • Moderately Processed: Other ingredients and additives are starting to be thrown into the mix to enhance flavor and texture. This could be as simple as adding salt or sugar. Examples include bread, cheese or pasta. There are usually no more than five ingredients. A decent amount of its nutritional value is retained.  
    • Ultra Processed: The most dangerous category that has little-to-no nutritional value. Loads of artificial ingredients, chemicals and food preservatives. They are often mass-produced and are designed to increase food cravings. Examples include sugary drinks, candy, some cookies, breakfast cereals and chips.
 Every food product does not perfectly fit into these categories, but the point is that the more processed something is, the less nutritional value it has. It is highly nutritious to eat unprocessed or minimally processed food. Depending on the quality of ingredients (i.e. organic), moderately processed food still offers some nutritional benefit.  The problem, as we mentioned above, is that 60 to 70% of the American diet consists of ultra-processed foods. And this is the food that overwhelms grocery stores, and is causing so much disease.

CHEMICALS IN OUR FOOD

To really understand this, you need to know it’s not just about the nutrients that are being stripped away during food processing. That alone is a big issue, like with dietary fiber and ultra pasteurization. But the other primary issue is what is being added into our food, many things that we are completely unaware of. Generally, we trust if something is on the shelf at the grocery store, it is safe. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Major food companies load their products with chemicals that were developed in a lab. They do this for a few reasons, all which stem back to greed and the desire to maximize profit. These chemicals make foods more addictive, in addition to making them last longer. Some additives, like the color of M&M’s, are purely for marketing purposes.  For most of history, this was not nearly as big of a problem as it is today. As historian Bryan McDonald explains in Food Power, “during the 1950s, food scientists developed more than 400 new additives for use in preserving and processing foods.”  What is being put in our food supply is nothing short of scary.  So much so, that there are many ingredients banned in Europe, but are allowed in the United States. This includes chemicals and additives like Azodicarbonamide, BHA, BHT, Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO), Potassium Bromate, Proplyparaben and Titanium Dioxide. Not to mention a whole host of other ingredients that are regularly used in beloved products like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in Heinz Ketchup. This is so bad that Whole Foods has banned over 260+ ingredients from ever making their way into their grocery stores.  Food companies, especially large ones, do not have our health in mind. To change their practices and outlaw these ingredients would be extremely inconvenient for them and cost prohibitive.

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WHERE IS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT?

Naturally, this is extremely frustrating and concerning.  You might be wondering where the U.S. government stands amidst all of this. If Whole Foods and Europe have taken steps towards protecting their customers and people, why hasn’t the U.S. government? The reality is that the U.S. government could ban all these ingredients tomorrow, and all of these companies would be forced to change their practices. But they don’t. Partially because they claim our food supply is safe. The current framework in the United States for evaluating the safety of our food supply is called GRAS, which means “generally recognized as safe”. As you can guess from the name, the purpose of the program is to deem an ingredient safe or not. Every new ingredient is supposed to undergo safety evaluations by experts and proven not to cause harm. Once the ingredient goes through this rigorous process, it gets added to the GRAS ingredient list so that all manufacturers can use it moving forward. In theory, this sounds great.  But in practice, it’s been a disaster, because there is virtually no oversight into this process. More often than not, we find that it is the corrupt food companies that end up choosing what is considered GRAS. The same companies that are knowingly causing disease. How could this be? The answer lies in how something actually becomes a GRAS ingredient. First, all ingredients that were in use before 1958 got grandfathered into the GRAS ingredient list. Meaning, for the last 65 years, the government has NEVER checked these ingredients to see if they were safe or not. This essentially makes us human guinea pigs. Secondly, it is on the food companies to self-report if they are introducing a new ingredient. They are to conduct their own studies, and prepare a report for the U.S. government. If they think that the ingredient is going to get denied, they could simply just pull the report and avoid the issue altogether.  Since the process isn’t regulated, they can continue to use the ingredient. There are other ingredients that remain on the list that the U.S. government claims are safe, even though it has been scientifically proven that many cause disease. "Some of these products contain additives that the FDA has found to pose dangers. And even ingredients the agency has agreed are GRAS are now drawing scrutiny from scientists and consumer groups that dispute their safety," NPR reports Hence the action of the European Union to ban certain ingredients that the United States allows. There are a couple problems with the food regulation process in the United States, including:
    • Funding: The reality is that the government doesn’t allocate nearly enough funding to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the market. This needs to change.
    • Motives: But the bigger reality is that the government has proven they largely can’t be trusted, and don’t act in our interest. Instead,  we see evidence that they are in bed with large food companies.
 The U.S. government can claim that our food supply is safe all they want, but the data suggests otherwise. And the truth is that they are only saying that because of the conflict of interest that exists between the government and the food industry. We talked about this extensively in another blog, “The Rise of Disease & Greed: Inside the Global Corruption of the Food Industry”.

THE MODERN HEALTH EPIDEMIC

What has this done to the health of the American population? Create a massive health crisis. In the 1950s, just 10% of the population was obese. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 42%.  Chronic diseases are a source of incredible suffering in the general population, as people deal with cancer, diabetes, digestive disorders, strokes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and kidney disease.  The latest data from the CDC revealed that 7 out of 10 deaths every year are due to chronic diseases. Much of that stems back to the corruption in the food industry. The reality is that ultra processed food is a huge culprit of disease for many reasons, including pesticides, antibiotic-use, growth hormones, GMOs and food additives. In 2019, Dr. Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) wanted to test the impact of ultra-processed food in a controlled experiment.  He gathered a group of 20 random volunteers to measure the effects of highly processed food on our bodies. Hall was skeptical at just how much of an impact there'd be, yet was shocked by his study's findings.  This was his process: 
    • Participants were divided into two groups.
    • One group had to eat only ultra-processed meals, and the other group could only eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods. 
 They aimed to answer this question: does eating processed food cause you to eat more, and cause lasting health issues? The answer was yes. "The study found that people who ate processed food ate more calories and gained more weight than when they consumed a whole food diet with foods that were unprocessed," the NIH reported "On average, participants gained 0.9 kilograms, or 2 pounds [per week], while they were on the ultra-processed diet and lost an equivalent amount on the unprocessed diet.” Of course, this study just confirmed the startling trend around chronic disease in the United States. Ultra processed food is linked with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. And if you really think about it, this makes complete sense. Why WOULDN’T putting chemicals in our body, especially over the long-term, cause disease? It’s simply not natural and our bodies can’t handle it.

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RECLAIMING OUR HEALTH

If this is the climate, what can we do? Even though it can feel like you’re running uphill, there are many ways that we can reclaim our health. There are principles we can practice to avoid ultra-processed food.  Yes, the system is corrupt. Both with the companies manufacturing food, and the government who is regulating it. But the truth is that the decisions we make now as consumers will have lasting impacts on our health and go a long way towards changing the system of the future. We can create change with our wallets. The beautiful part is that there are also food companies out there that are creating solutions and providing nutritious products, while also producing them ethically and sustainably. Here are six quick principles that will help you avoid ultra-processed food.

Examine your relationship with food

As we briefly mentioned above, ultra processed foods are addicting. This is by design. Largely because of the influence of the food industry, this has caused many of us to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Our diet isn’t great and we tend to overeat. In times of stress, eating ultra-processed foods has brought us comfort. Some products have been part of our regular eating routines for a long time, and we are now hooked on them. When this is the starting point, it can feel like there are so many psychological barriers to overcome. Recognizing that this might be a struggle is one of the first steps towards change. Our attitude towards ourselves has to be rooted in compassion, not shame. Much research has proven that shame is a terrible motivator factor as it relates to changing our diet. If you slip and eat something, give yourself grace. Brush it off. Start anew the next day. The last thing we should resort to is meditating on the lie that this one time of indulging an unhealthy food means we’ve permanently gone off-course. 

Come up with a gameplan

The fight against the food industry and ultra processed products is an active fight. It’s not passive. If we treat it passively, we’ll lose every single time we visit the grocery store or eat out. Which means we need to come up with a gameplan.  Do we typically eat out a lot, or are we open to cooking at home? If you’re eating at home, meal planning is a great strategy for being intentional with what you eat every week. If we eat out a lot, be intentional with the places that we eat at. Do your research on where they source their food. Especially if you are going to invest your health with them by eating at their restaurant or chain on a continual basis. Another strategy part of an effective game plan is making simple swaps. For example, if you love peanut butter, swap out the ultra processed brands like Skippy or JIF for Once Again organic peanut butter. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s for a reason. It doesn’t include junk ingredients and food additives like Skippy or JIF. Simple swaps ensure you can still eat the food you love, and be healthy for doing so.

A beginner's guide for food labels

We’ve developed an entire guide for reading food labels, which will be essential in the battle against ultra processed food. This might feel like information overload at first, but over time it will become much more intuitive and you will naturally recognize what is healthy. Specifically, we need to learn how to weed out the harmful food additives. One universal principle is to only buy foods that have five ingredients or less. As we’ve talked about, the more ingredients something has, the more processed that item has become. Another principle is to always buy organic. Do this for meats, vegetables, packaged foods – everything. While the regulation process isn’t perfect, it largely ensures that you will avoid other harmful things in your food, including pesticides, growth hormones and GMOs.

Beat the manipulation at the grocery store

Another guide we’ve developed is around how to shop at the grocery store. We don’t naturally think of them as manipulative places, but you would be surprised. Marion Nestle, who perhaps the top food researcher in the world, puts it this way in What to Eat: “Breathtaking amounts of research have gone into designing these places. There are precise reasons why milk is at the back of the store and the center aisles are so long. You are forced to go past thousands of other products on your way to get what you need.” As soon as you walk in the doors, ultra-processed food is getting shoved in your face, which makes the temptation even harder. We’d recommend checking out that resource here.

Continually educate yourself

Lastly, our journey with processed food is a continual one. We have to keep learning about industry practices if we are going to fight against them. This includes the corruption in the food industry and how it works, as well as why we hear so much conflicting information about nutrition all the way. For more, click here to visit our Nutrition Hub.

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