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Looking very briefly at the history of processed foods the manipulation of ingredients which allows us to preserve foods and make them easier to eat dates back thousands of years. Early methods of processing include roasting on open fires, pickling, drying, fermenting and salting. Water sanitation, canning, freezing, refrigeration and more technical modern methods include vacuum packing, UV surface treatment and power ultrasound (whatever that is!).
All of these techniques allow us to extend the shelf life of foods, make them safer to eat and easier for us to digest. Historical methods and those that have much more recently appeared have allowed civilisation to get where it is today. And, by-the-by, also allowed women to get out of the kitchen and contribute to society!!
Although there isn’t really a widely accepted definition for processed foods, the NOVA classification (which places foods and ingredients into 4 categories depending on how ‘processed’ they are) is commonly used:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, e.g. fresh fruit and veg, milk and meat. These foods may have some level of processing but have no added fat, sugar or salt.
2. Processed culinary ingredients, e.g. salt, honey, vegetable oils. These are naturally derived ingredients usually used in combination with the above foods.
3. Processed foods, e.g. canned veg and fruit, fresh bread, cheese. These are foods which are seen as relatively simple and usually contain around 2 or 3 ingredients from the above 2 categories.
4. Ultra-processed foods and drinks, e.g. chocolate, breakfast cereals, ready meals. Foods such as these usually contain 5 or more ingredients and are often made to industrial formulations. This also includes foods from category 3 that have additives to enhance taste or appearance such as sliced bread and sweetened yoghurt.
One recent scientific review looked at the highest consumption of processed foods in various European countries and linked it with rates of obesity. This found a general positive relationship between the two with the UK having both the highest household availability of ultra-processed foods (50.4% – although bear in mind that availability doesn’t necessarily represent actual intake) and obesity (24.5%) of all countries in the study. As a mantra I’m often spouting out in relation to scientific research correlation DOES NOT show causation. Particularly with the complex biological and environmental factors that determine our weight and the nature of our behaviours that influence food choice, we just can't say that greater availability of ultra-processed foods causes obesity.
The use of the phrase processed food has become to represent bad, junk and unhealthy food. But based on the above definition (which doesn’t take into account nutrient density OR cost of food OR convenience) many foods which we're actively encouraged to eat, such as processed fruit and vegetables, bread, cheese, yoghurt and breakfast cereals, fall into the category of evil processed foods… to me this makes no sense. Even thinking about ultra-processed foods (which get the majority of hate) often these are made using similar methods to those we use at home, just on a bigger scale.
The hatred of all processed foods also carries a certain level of snobbery to my mind and doesn’t take into account the huge inequalities we have in income, let alone ability to prepare meals from scratch. Expensive energy balls or protein bars bought from health food shops would fit into the fourth NOVA category, but we wouldn’t call them ultra-processed would we..?
Just to sum up I wanted to lay out in simple terms why I believe processed foods deserve defending:
Money – processed foods are often pretty shelf stable and therefore can be priced more cheaply
Nutrient content – arbitrarily categorising foods into unprocessed=good and processed=bad doesn’t take into account the range of nutrients contributed by different foods
Time – not everyone has the luxury of time, energy or resources to make every meal from scratch. I mean who can do that unless you have a personal chef?!
Food waste – preserving foods means we can keep fresh produce for much longer than if we left them in their natural state
Forms of processing – canning, freezing, baking, blending and countless other methods all count as processing of some kind. Are canned tomatoes now ‘unhealthy’?
Processing makes foods safe to eat!
This is yet another example of reducing complex nutritional concerns into oversimplified black and white terms. Admittedly there is the intention of improving health but in actual fact it only leads to elitism, confusion and incorrect messaging. Now I’m not saying we should eat ready meals everyday – cooking from scratch can be so rewarding (and therapeutic for some, but definitely not everyone!) – but shaming people for eating these kinds of foods due to lack of time, resources or ability is just wrong and has been shown to make no positive changes to health.
So next time you feel you ‘have to’ choose the £5 hand-baked crusty loaf over the 50p sliced bread, please just take a second to question why. That pause could save you a bundle of cash and make absolutely no difference to your long-term health!