Unlearning the myths of Processed Food

Word on the street is that processed foods are the bad guy. Is it an urban myth, or is this the real deal? Let’s break down processed foods and find out.

What is processed food? 

A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.[1] Pretty much any activity turns whole foods into processed food: washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing and packaging. 

This means most foods are actually processed to some extent: the frozen spinach in your freezer is processed, the Bio sauerkraut from the farmers market you impressed your in-laws with is processed, your precious Almond & Fig Plenny Bar is processed - and they are all crazy healthy. 

And what are some non-processed foods? 

Whole foods are raw ingredients which have undergone no or minimal processing. This includes most of the fresh fruits and vegetables displayed at your local grocery store, but also nuts and eggs [2]. 

The history of processed food 

Food processing has been around since the dawn of civilization [3]. Mankind has always wanted hassle-free solutions to their daily inconveniences, and processing foods made it possible. 

Do you recognize this problem?

 “Gosh darnit, my food goes to waste before I can consume it!” 

Well, processing can fix this! It can extend a product’s shelf life while preserving its nutritional values. 

Food security

Processing is a pillar element of food security [4]. Everyday staple foods like beer, bread, and tofu derive from ancient processing methods. The history of bread appears to have begun some 30,000 years ago. Before you can enjoy the satisfaction of slicing a freshly baked loaf, grain has to be grown, harvested, milled; and that’s when the actual  “bread making” begins. The process then requires adding water, salt, a rising agent, and letting time and temperature do their job. Quite some processing, but that doesn’t make bread a bad thing. 

Instant foods

Prior to pandemic times, when life was more on-the-go, processed foods had become more popular over the last few decades. Consumers were looking for quick and easy fixes, and food manufacturers delivered by providing consumers with ready-to-eat and instant foods. The main characteristics of these foods were quick preparation time (if any) and long shelf life. However, many food products were being stuffed with preservatives, additives, and more salt and sugar than necessary. These factors lead to a shift in global health, for instance an increased rate of obesity. 

Four degrees of processing
To help people understand what foods were causing these issues, a group of Brazilian scientists developed a classification system called ‘NOVA’ [5]. The system divides foodstuffs into four groups, based upon the degree of processing. The four groups go by (1) unprocessed or minimally processed foods,(2) processed culinary ingredients, (3) processed foods, and (4) ultra-processed foods.

When is processed food bad? 

Some processing methods can lead to nutritional loss, but this happens also to “natural” foods over time. Take a banana for instance, it’s an ever-transforming food. It’s growing and ripening on the tree, and when it’s ripped off it is only a matter of days before it turns from green to black. During that period, sugar levels steadily increase. Depending on what time we decide to consume our food, the nutrient profile may slightly differ. [6].

Vegetable oils

In some cases processing foods leads to completely new ingredients [7]. For example, without processing there would be no way of extracting precious oils from nuts or seeds. And who would want to live in a world without olive oil? 

Ultra-processed foods

And then there’s ultra-processed foods. These are foods that have been subjected to chemical procedures [8]. These processes can result in no longer being able to recognize the original plant or animal sources used for these food products [9]. An example? Candy! Most of those irresistible and colourful looking sweets are made with gelatin, derived from processing animal skin and bones [10]. And, of course, loaded with sugar. The devil in disguise comes in the form of high amounts of sodium (salt), trans fats, and sugar. 

Empty calories

Foods are generally ultra-processed to stabilize the product and extend shelf-life [11]. But often at the cost of losing nutritional value. This food group is often said to be rich in ‘empty calories’, because it is low in nutrients and high in energy density (Mr. Sugar has got you covered *wink-wink*). 

How about Jimmy Joy meals?

Jimmy Joy meals are undeniably processed foods. Processing ingredients into the form of a powder is a great way to incorporate rich nutrients in our daily diet. Powders require little preparation and are versatile. Think of superfood powders like spirulina and baobab: they can easily be spread over a bowl of granola, dissolved in a glass of water, or hidden in a delicious pancake. These are all ways to enrich your nutritional intake, without the inconvenience of preparing whole and raw foods. 

The ultimate meal

But while superfoods are usually composed of one ingredient only, Plenny Shakes contain a blend of ingredients - a group of nutrient-rich ingredients that have joined powers to provide the ultimate meal. These ingredients have been carefully selected for their nutritional values and health benefits. In fact, Plenny meals have 172 health benefits in total! True story

Summary

Cutting out processed foods from your life entirely is not recommendable. Instead, we should learn to identify good from bad, according to our needs. Processed foods are great when it comes to convenience. Canned beans and Plenny Shakes are saving us a lot of preparation time, and guarantee a healthy daily intake of micro and macro nutrients. If you are trying to navigate the sea of processed foods, then ingredient lists are your new best friend. Avoid foods that contain added sugars, high levels of trans-fats, or are loaded with salt. 

Good processed foods

Ready-to-eat foods are not the enemy. And neither are calories. Mostly, the degree of healthiness of a food product depends on its nutritional profile. If we are speaking about the chocolate bar in the vending machine with 300kcal, then chances are you are eating sugar more than anything else. Look out for nutritional specifications and aim for high numbers in the fiber, protein, vitamin A, C, and D, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium categories.

And if you are at a loss for ideas for good processed foods, here’s a list: 

  • Whole wheat/whole meal pasta and noodles
  • Vegetables: fermented, fresh, or frozen
  • Fruits: dried, fresh, or frozen
  • Beans and legumes
  • Canned fish
  • Nut butters 
  • Yoghurts
  • Oatmeal
  • Rice 
  • Plenny meals

Of course, we couldn’t let this opportunity slide to mention our Plenny meals again: class-A processed foods with complete nutrition and 172 proven health benefits. Honestly, processed food doesn’t get much better than this.


Sources

[1] Connie M Weaver, Johanna Dwyer, Victor L Fulgoni, III, Janet C King, Gilbert A Leveille, Ruth S MacDonald, Jose Ordovas, David Schnakenberg, Processed foods: contributions to nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 6, June 2014, Pages 1525–1542.

[2] Connie M Weaver, Johanna Dwyer, Victor L Fulgoni, III, Janet C King, Gilbert A Leveille, Ruth S MacDonald, Jose Ordovas, David Schnakenberg, Processed foods: contributions to nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 6, June 2014, Pages 1525–1542, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.089284

[3] Kim, E. (2013). Processed Food: A 2-Million-Year History. Scientific American.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/processed-food-a-two-million-year-history/

[4] Connie M Weaver, Johanna Dwyer, Victor L Fulgoni, III, Janet C King, Gilbert A Leveille, Ruth S MacDonald, Jose Ordovas, David Schnakenberg, Processed foods: contributions to nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 6, June 2014, Pages 1525–1542, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.089284

[5] Flemish Institute of Healthy Living (2020) Implications of food processing: the role of ultra-processed foods in a healthy and sustainable diet. Laken (Brussels), Online: gezondleven.be

[6] Booth, J. (2018). It turns out ripe and unripe bananas have different health benefits — here's what you need to know. Business Insider. 

https://www.businessinsider.com/ripe-unripe-bananas-which-are-better-for-you-2018-7?international=true&r=US&IR=T

[7] NHS website. (2020). Eating processed foods . nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-processed-foods/#:%7E:text=A%20processed%20food%20is%20any,canning

[8] Smith, A. (2020). How do processed foods affect your health? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318630

[9] Popkin. B. 2020. Ultra-processed foods’ impacts on health. 2030 – Food, Agriculture and rural development in Latin America and the Caribbean, No. 34. Santiago de Chile. FAO.

[10] CBC Radio (2019). Pig skin, dead wasps and bee vomit: what's really in that candy? CBC

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/costofliving/shopping-for-candy-and-cell-phones-and-will-you-even-be-able-to-buy-them-at-the-bay-in-ten-years-1.5332657/pig-skin-dead-wasps-and-bee-vomit-what-s-really-in-that-candy-1.5332660#:~:text=Gelatin%20comes%20from%20animal%20skin,bears%20a%20delightfully%20bouncy%20texture.

[11] Collins, S. (2020). Hidden Dangers of Ultraprocessed Foods. Nourish by WebMind.

https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20200221/hidden-dangers-of-ultraprocessed-foods#:~:text=Research%20links%20ultra%2Dprocessed%20foods,convenience%20foods%20to%20cancer%20risk.