When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are "any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling."
This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.
Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.
Why do we like them?
And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.
Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating - and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.
Why shouldn’t we like them?
Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.
What is ‘processed’ to you?
The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?
Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.
People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?
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