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Just what is processed food?

A hamburger, fries and desert.

As with many aspects of our modern social existence, food and the choices we make when it comes to eating have become politicised and much debated over recent years. 

What meat we eat, whether we should eat meat at all, the impact of our food on the environment and the role of foodstuffs in trading relationships have all become hot topics. For myself, I tend to focus more on the health dimension to food and the relationship of our diets to our energy levels and longevity. 

In our developed western society, another angle then gets added to the debates around food comes when the impact of industrialisation on food processing is taken into account. 

Industrialised food production has enabled millions of people, particularly those on fixed incomes, to eat regularly and to feed their families. It has put food on the tables of those who may, without such food production, be trapped living a substandard existence. 

The downside of industrialised food production, however, is that such food processing can also rob our diets of variety, nutrients and a connection to the food we eat. By squeezing down the price of our meat and vegetable-based meals, food production can also deny us a healthy and authentic culinary experience. 

But when deciding what to eat, if we are lucky enough to be able to make such choices, what exactly do we mean when we talk about processed food?

To my mind, I think it is important to keep this part of the debate as simple as possible, particularly as this is one of the foundations to any discussion about healthy eating.

So, I would suggest classifying food into four categories, as follows:

Non-processed food: This includes some minimally processed foods such as pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed, bagged spinach, as well as whole food-based meals including vegetables, beans and whole grains.

Not so processed food: These are defined by how foods are extracted from natural sources to make a different product, such as olive oil. 

Processed food: Which typically can include cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or foods that are changed in nutritional composition through fortifying, preserving or preparation (every time we cook, bake or prepare food we are in effect processing it ourselves!).

Ultra-processed food: This includes foods or drinks that have undergone intense industrialised processing, with the ‘product’ designed to be convenient, hyper-palatable, appealing to consumers and highly profitable for the producers. Think doughnuts.

My suggestion would be to aim as much as possible for the higher end of the above scale when making decisions about what to eat and to be aware when you might be dipping too heavily into the lower end. 

We all enjoy processed food at some point and there is nothing wrong with that. The problems come when unprocessed food becomes the norm’, as this brings with it all the problems we are or should be familiar with (diabetes, obesity, heart disease). 

At which point it becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to reverse the damage that has been done to our bodies. So, as with many things in life, it is better to avoid this problem arising in the first place than to try to repair the damage caused after the event.

And the starting point in achieving this balance is to understand the field of play where food is concerned and to make the right choices about what we eat from the outset.


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