Junk food! Everyone knows the term, almost everyone has their favourite, and everyone when asked to name a few would be able to name many more than a few with no hesitation at all. There are certain foods that are immediately recognized as junk foods – many ‘take-away foods’, as well lots of others, packaged and sold in supermarkets or convenience stores – potato chips, biscuits, lollies, soft drinks – are all obvious inclusions. But, what about other junk foods that are masquerading as ‘healthier’ options?
Processed foods are those that have had the ingredients altered so they are no longer in their natural state. Humans have processed their food for millennia. Any food that’s prepared by drying, grinding, chopping or cooking is processed. Traditionally this was done to make the food more digestible or to preserve it for later, when food may not be available. Grain foods were processed, and cheese, sausage and wine are just a few others.
Modern processed foods may on the surface seem far less insidious than the widely accepted ‘junk foods’. But often they are just as bad for you. No longer are processed foods the artisan foods of the past. Now foods are industrially processed in factories. In fact most of the foods in the Aussie diet are processed.
Processing may be as simple as freezing or it may be putting together a complete meal ready to heat and eat. During the process many of the nutrients that are in the original food are destroyed leaving the finished product a far cry from the original, and certainly not in line with the traditional purpose of processing. Grains are treated with very high temperatures and pressure which destroys the nutrients, denatures the fatty acids, and the process even destroys the synthetic vitamins that are added. But not only does the extrusion process used for grains destroy the nutrients, in particular the amino acid lysine, it turns the grains into neurotoxins according to biochemist Paul Stitt in his book Fighting the Food Giants.
Processed foods often appear to be healthy. These days they may feature low-fat, low-carb, fortified with vitamins, fibre, iron, or minerals, no trans-fats, containing omega-3, high-calcium, plus many more. They may make claims to promote health such as ‘may reduce the risk of heart disease’. But they all have the flavour enhanced with excess salt, sugar or oil. Many processed foods like white bread, are essentially empty calories offering very little nutritional value, certainly far less than the wholefood alternative.
During processing part of the plant is often removed or purposefully changed. One example where you can see this is with wheat grains used for bread. The wholewheat grain forms with three layers, the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. (diagram) The bran is the layer where the fibre exists. Most nutrients and fatty acids are found in the germ. The endosperm is the starchy layer. The high nutrient density of grains only exists (and provides us with nutrients) when these layers are intact. During processing of the wholewheat grain into a loaf of white bread, most of the germ and bran is stripped away leaving just the starchy endosperm.
Take a look at the package or label on your white bread and notice all the ingredients that are listed. In the past bread was made by mixing whole milled wheat, often other grains or seeds, water, salt and a fermented dough starter, to create an easily digested, fermented bread, or sourdough loaf. Later yeast was used instead of the fermented starter. Traditonally, the bread mixture was kneaded and left to prove twice, unlike commercial breads which are only left to prove once. The extra steps in the process allowed the components of the grain, such as the phytic acid, to break down properly so they can be properly absorbed, or, as is the case with phytic acid which inhibits absorption of other minerals if it is not broken down, to prevent them interfering with efficient metabolism.
In commercial processed breads, the process is rushed through, with steps eliminated, and lots of other ingredients beside the basic ingredients that are needed to make home-made bread added. Preservatives, sweeteners, gluten, salt, soy flour plus many chemicals are all added to the mix.
Bread is a perfect example of the big problem with processed foods and also the pointer as to how to get around the problem. Traditional methods of food preparation allowed for the use of pure, wholefood ingredients. Home made foods did not need to have lots of chemicals straight out of the laboratory, many of which come with health cautions, added to stabilize the product and make it more appealing.
Home made food may include less than desirable ingredients, such as sugar, but at least the sugar is real sugar, and not a chemical version, and the butter is butter and not a questionable vegetable oil, or you can make the choice to replace the butter with a healthier fat option such as coconut oil. With processed foods there is no choice. You cannot opt to avoid trans fats or white sugar.
Many of the chemicals, including vitamins and minerals, that occur in a plant work together to help the plant grow and survive more efficiently, and they also work together in a synergistic balance once they enter your body and are metabolized. But when foods are processed the natural balance between the different chemicals in the original food is upset so their effect on your body and the way in which they work, is altered. Many extra chemicals also need to be added to processed food to stabilize the product, or to make it look, taste, or feel more appealing, and these are rarely good for you
HOW TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Sometimes it is difficult to know whether or not a food is processed, and the first step is to get a few guidelines to help you recognize them when they are traveling incognito. It all comes down to reading the ingredient list, because even a glance at the list will often set the alarm bells ringing. If the product has a long list of ingredients then you can be pretty sure it is processed. The case with the bread is a good example, where the food should have only a few ingredients when made according to traditional methods, often there may be eight, ten or even fifteen on the label.
If the food has a long list of ingredients where there should only be a few it is likely processed.
If you don’t recognize many of the ingredients, or can’t pronounce them, then it is probably highly processed.
If it has a very long shelf life – the ‘use by’ date is way off in the future it is processed.
If it contains trans fats, MSG, or lots of numbers it is definitely processed. In fact about ninety-five percent of processed foods contain MSG.
Take-away foods are a real trap. Aside form the obvious problem with deep frying foods like fish and chips, even foods that seem ok are loaded with highly processed ingredients. Pizza for instance, is covered in oils, processed meats and cheese. The kids menu is particularly bad, generally comprising only highly processed foods such as nuggets, chips and pasta (which is white and therefore highly processed). Salad, vegetables or a baked potato are all less processed options. Beware though of some of the ‘take-away salad chains’ as many of their salads are loaded with processed ingredients in the dressings, again take a quick look at the ingredient list.
If you set out to eat more fruit and vegetables then you will find you have naturally replaced many processed foods with more natural ones without even being aware of it. Get to know when they are in season and try to eat seasonally, as that is the way you will get the best level of nutrients available.
Look for suitable alternatives – porridge made from wholegrain oats (not quick oats) or quinoa makes a great alternative to boxed cereals. Other breakfast options might be eggs with spinach, asparagus or avocado, quinoa with fruit and nuts, fruit salad and yoghurt, high-fibre-superfood fruit smoothies, omelettes with different vegetables, homemade baked beans, bircher muesli with fruit, green juice. When I have some time I enjoy stir-fried vegetables.
We are all time stressed these days, but the very best way to avoid processed foods is to make foods yourself. Instead of just watching Masterchef, get out in the kitchen yourself and cook up your own junk foods. When you make cakes, muffins or biscuits yourself you can use real eggs, butter or good oils and avoid artificial colours, preservatives and trans fats. Make your own oven-baked potato wedges and avoid the additives. You can flavour them with spices like sumac for an extra kick. Invest in a bread maker, making bread at home is so easy these days, you can even start your own sourdough bread starter.
This is the way to start back to good health through our eating, by reclaiming a few of the best practices of the past, by becoming aware enough to check out what we are consuming before wolfing it down, and by selecting foods that look like they may have come from the garden.
What are your favourite ‘junk food’ alternatives?
All information and opinions presented here are for information purposes only and are not intended as a substitute for professional advice offered during a consultation. Please consult with your health care provider before following any of the treatment suggested on this site, particularly if you have an ongoing health issue.
- 10 Things the Processed Food Industry Does Not Want You to Know (wakingtimes.com)
- Nine reasons to never eat processed foods again (laceysorganics.wordpress.com)
- Organic Junk Food is still… junk food (agricultureproud.com)