Enjoying the processed?

When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.

young woman shopping

Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.

Why do we like them?

And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.

Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating – and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Why shouldn’t we like them?

Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.

Obesity, ADHD, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (including diabetes II, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancers have been associated with processed foods.

 

What is ‘processed’ to you?

The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?

Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.

People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?

For more on food processing and convenience, read my tomorrow’s newsletter, Nutrilicious News. There is still time to subscribe. Of course it’s completely free!

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Snooze yourself to health

According to a report published by The Sleep Council in March 2013 the number of Britons getting just five to six hours sleep per night has risen dramatically: 40% of us are not getting the six to nine hours recommended by the NHS.

Why is that? In the majority of cases health conditions, such as depression and anxiety or chronic pain are keeping us awake at night. Many are unable to sleep due to worry, but a great many of us are just not going to bed on time to get the rest we need. Some see sleep as a waste of time, which would be better spent working. Others don’t like going to bed early, because the only me-time they can get is in the evenings, when at last they get home after a long and stressful day at work or when the kids are finally tucked up and asleep. Understandable. But is it wise?

The fact that sleep is something our body just demands is a strong clue that we need it and that it is in fact good for something. If we are prevented from sleeping – and remember: sleep deprivation is a form of torture! – we will die. But even without this drastic outcome, sleep deprivation seriously affects our health.

Photo: Ambro, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Photo: Ambro, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Almonds are your friend

picture credit: Victor Hanacek (viktorhanacek.com)
picture credit: Victor Hanacek (viktorhanacek.com)

Nuts have had a hard time: being high in fat and therefore calories, they were shunned by many. However, they’ve been enjoying a comeback since fat has been exonerated and we now know that “a calorie is not a calorie”. Recent research has shown that – contrary to popular belief – almonds actually help you slim down rather than make you fat, and protect the heart at the same time. A possible reason for the slimming effect of almonds may be that they make you feel satisfied and you are less likely to reach for sugary snacks. Another possibility is that they stimulate the metabolism. Nuts (and seeds) offer excellent nutrition and are a very handy, portable snack.

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Sugar is the new fat

For more than 60 years now, we have been told to limit our fat intake or – better still – to avoid it altogether, because not only does fat make you fat, it also causes heart disease.

It turns out though, that obesity rates have gone up ever since. Is that because still nobody is listening to nutrition advice? Not at all! People did listen: We now eat a lot less fat than we used to, especially of the saturated kind. The shops are full of low-fat products, we’re buying lean meat – preferably poultry –, skimmed milk and skinny lattes. And yet, heart disease is still one of the two leading causes of death in the UK alongside cancer.

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Tomato – The Fruit of Paradise

A few years ago in Romania, I had a tomato salad that reminded me of how tomatoes are supposed to taste. I had forgotten. The tomatoes in my salad had most likely been grown in soil, outdoors – with the benefit of Mediterranean sun and heat – and been harvested only hours or at most days before I had the pleasure of eating them.

At home in Germany and the UK, most of the tomatoes I’d eaten in the years before this experience had come from supermarkets. They’d most likely been grown in greenhouses, without actual soil, but fibrous substitutes. They may have been picked prematurely and ripened “off the vine”. This allows for transport over long distances and for storage, which ripe tomatoes would survive for very long. Whilst there are hundreds of different varieties, the most common ones are not grown for flavour, but even size, shape and looks. The way tomatoes are commercially grown changed slowly over the years, and before I knew it I had forgotten what real tomatoes taste like.

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