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What, Specifically, Is The Definition Of Processed Food?

I love the catch-phrase, “you’ve gotta stay away from processed foods”.  I hear this tossed around almost on a daily basis and it always makes me cringe.  I didn’t know what this meant though – or let’s say the definition is exceptionally vague.  Some of the folks I hear this from are religitarians (fanatic vegetarians or vegans who want to believe in something so they replace God with food prep) who I don’t trust as far as I can throw. When I hear them say that I should avoid processed food, this is what I believe they mean:

* “Removal of unwanted outer layers, such as potato peeling or the skinning of peaches
* Chopping or slicing, of which examples include potato chips, diced carrot, or candied peel.
* Mincing and macerating
* Liquefaction, such as to produce fruit juice
* Emulsification
* Cooking, such as boiling, broiling, frying, steaming or grilling
* Mixing
* Addition of gas such as air entrainment for bread or gasification of soft drinks
* Proofing
* Spray drying”

So sliced carrots are to be avoided at all costs because the act of cutting them up will mystically give me cancer? I realize it may seem like I’m creating a straw man to knock down, but I’m not, look at the “restrictions” above again.

I put this to question to normal people:  Could you imagine eating three square meals made under those guidelines?  How about trying that out for a week?  I’d be kicking the cat before lunch on the first day.

Back in the day, processed food generally meant snack foods that used chemical preservatives, now the term is being hijacked to mean that you’re supposed to eat a potato like an apple. This is the politics of extremism.  Beating around the rather ample bush, if you will, certain extreme groups have a funny tendency to change and soften the language they use in order to make their chosen way of life seem more palatable to the uninformed and to make their extreme views seem a little less crazy.  In this case they hijack a popular notion, avoiding processed food, to mean anything that you can’t pull out of your compost pile fertilized garden – which in turn pretty much means vegetables only…  In fact, technically you couldn’t even do that because washing the dirt off of your carrots would have to be considered “processing”, no?  Probably not, but it makes for a funny argument doesn’t it?  How about having to eat your banana peel and all? Or maybe eating your grape vines too because you wouldn’t want to process the grape from that which gives it “life”? Taken to this degree avoiding “processing” is obviously ludicrous, but to me not cooking my chicken before I eat is just crazy.  I mean let’s face it, my organic Parmesan Risotto would be pretty gnarly if I didn’t cook it first – or should I be avoiding that as if it were lead based paint chips?

Therein lies the rub.  I spoke with a vegetarian friend of mine the other day who is on a new “non-processed” kick in which the group who writes the guidelines she’s choosing to live by introduce the notion that UFO’s were somehow involved in creating the world as we know it.  While I would discount everything they put to paper as kooky, this friend of mine took the no processed food part that she liked and suggested that the group should keep their UFO beliefs to themselves because they’ll turn off otherwise rational people.  That’s politics folks – only giving one half of a story to bolster support for beliefs that otherwise wouldn’t survive the light of day.

So what should be considered processed food to be avoided?  Ice cream?  Microwave popcorn?  How about Oreos?  Or Milk?  I can tell you for certain, I won’t be giving up anything that I now eat on a regular and consistent basis (most of which is good and healthy).

I’ll delve a little deeper“Coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – four of the top ten chronic diseases that kill most of us – “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food” according to Michael Pollan”.  Now as I see it, the rise of these diseases have nothing to do with “processing” and everything to do with availability.  The availability of food allows a person to eat far more than he could grow on his own.  Any suggestion that it’s the act of the processing causing obesity (which is responsible for all four of those diseases), to me, seems silly.  Processed food doesn’t cause obesity, eating too much food does (processed or not).  It’s like blaming the rooster because the hen-house was raided by a fox.  Further down the list:  “Cutting out processed foods could lead you to experience a variety of personal health benefits such as having more energy, losing weight, improving regularity, or just feeling healthier overall”.  From personal experience, people who cut out processed foods altogether are no more healthy than I am (and I eat some form of processed food every day by the stricter definition) – in fact, the few who are actually thin usually look like they were dragged through hell.  The others stay overweight (usually because physical exercise is non-existent in their daily life and being thin has more to do with portion sizes and exercise than eating “raw” food).  That last point is key – if I eat too much raw food and don’t burn any of those calories off, then I will remain or gain.  This isn’t rocket science in any way, shape or form.

In the end I see the relationship between heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer and the industrialization of food as a mere coincidence rather than a cause – Yes, these diseases started cropping up when food was industrialized but I believe that has to do with the fact that food was readily available more than the processes that are used to get that food to market.  This, I believe, is borne out by the facts, rather than the slick way in which the “raw food” crowd  manipulates those facts and times to make it appear as if industrialization causes disease.  The main thing industrialization did to was to end hunger as they knew it back then – in doing so, many in society chose to celebrate, with a few too many Twinkies.

Taken the wrong way, one could misunderstand what I’ve written to mean that I believe all processed foods are good and healthy.  Twinkies may be yummy, but let’s face it folks they’re nom-nom food (and I use the term “food” loosely).  Foods like that do not have a place in my daily diet.  I do believe that having a raw carrot is better than having a cooked one and I’d much prefer a salad to steamed food.  That said, this post has more to do with the extremist view that all food production is big business centered around profit and greed.  I don’t believe that has a basis in reality – and I’m willing to bet my microwaved popcorn on it.  Now that has a place in my diet and they can pry my popcorn bag from the non-shooting hand of my cold, dead body.