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What is a Processed Food?
By Gary F. Zeolla
A standard recommendation for healthy eating is to eat whole unprocessed foods and to avoid processed foods. But what is a processed food? Some would say that if a food is altered in any way from how it is found in nature, it is processed.
However, we alter just about every food we eat, with fresh fruits being about the only exception. But even then, if you are smart, you wash it before eating it. Is that processing? How about steaming vegetables? Or cooking meat? Or grinding grains into flour then baking that into bread? Or fermenting milk into cheese or yogurt? Is any of that processing?
I have written two books on nutrition and the Bible. They are God-given Foods Eating Plan and Creationist Diet: Second Edition. In them, I assert that by “processed” I mean any human alternations of food that is beyond what could have been done in Bible times.
With that definition, none of the above would be processed foods, although veggies were probably boiled rather than steamed. But what about microwaving? And what about the myriad of other alterations we make to our food? How can we separate healthy forms of alterations from unhealthy ones?
In this article, I will try to give a definition of a processed food that looks at the health or nutritional consequences of the alterations. Along the way, I will consider how others have tried to answer this question. At the root of all of this will be to try to get back to what God (or nature) intended us to eat, which is the theme of both of my books.
More Than Three (or Five) Ingredients
A simple way some have tried to distinguish between a processed food and an unprocessed food is by looking at the number of ingredients. A one-ingredient food is most likely unprocessed. Thus, if a food contains just one of the following, it would be unprocessed: apple, orange, carrot, lettuce, broccoli, pecans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, beef, chicken, fish, milk, egg. The list could go on with various fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and meats.
However, all of these would be processed in some way before consumption, with again, the possible exception of fruit. Nuts are shelled and often roasted. Meats and eggs are cooked in some way, and milk today is usually homogenized and pasteurized. But still, when you see a food with just one or a couple of ingredients. It is likely to be an unprocessed food that bears close resemblance to what is found in nature. And most likely, it would be healthier than a food with many ingredients.
Conversely, when you see a food with a long list of ingredients, that is usually a sign that significant alterations have been made of each of the ingredients to end up with that food, with the resultant food bearing little or no resemblance to a food item as it appears in nature.
Opinions vary as to the top limit for the number of ingredients, but it usually from three to five. But whatever the exact number, a great number of ingredients probably means the food is processed and should be avoided. Thus, for instance, a Twinkie contains 37 ingredients. That is a lot of ingredients. Not surprisingly, the resultant food bears little resemblance to anything found in nature. And most would agree Twinkies are a processed food that are not very healthy.
Compare that with a Larabar Cherry Pie Fruit and Nut Bar. It contains just three ingredients: Dates, almonds, and cherries. None of these foods exist in nature in a perfect rectangle, so they have been altered in some way to squeeze them into a bar shape. But each by itself is a natural food that exists in nature, with little alteration other than crushing and squeezing to make them into a bar. Other flavors of Larabar bars might contain a few more ingredients, but they follow the same trend of being natural foods that have been altered only by crushing and squeezing them into a rectangle.
Thus, if one goes by the number of ingredients, a Larabar Bar would less processed and a healthier snack than a Twinkie. But an even more natural snack would be trail mix. Assuming it contains just dried fruit, nuts, and seeds, those would all be closer in form to what is found in nature. But then, it could contain more than five ingredients, if it has a great variety of those foods in it.
For another example, Ezekiel Bread is considered by many to be the healthiest form of bread. Its name comes from its ingredients being taken from the Bible, the Book of Ezekiel, where God gives a bread recipe to Ezekiel. Thus, bread is a Biblical food, with this form of it being especially so. However, Ezekiel Bread (original) contains a dozen ingredients. That is far less than Twinkies but far more than the five-ingredient limit. Where the difference comes in is if we look at those ingredients.
A Twinkie contains:
Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Reduced Iron, B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid)], Corn Syrup, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Animal Shortening (Soybean, Cottonseed and/or Canola Oil, Beef Fat), Whole Eggs, Dextrose. Contains 2% or Less of: Modified Corn Starch, Glucose, Leavenings (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Sweet Dairy Whey, Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium and Sodium Caseinate, Salt, Mono and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour, Cornstarch, Cellulose Gum, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Yellow 5, Red 40.
Ezekiel Bread contains:
Organic sprouted wheat, filtered water, organic malted barley, organic sprouted rye, organic sprouted barley, organic sprouted oats, organic sprouted millet, organic sprouted corn, organic sprouted brown rice, fresh yeast, organic wheat gluten and sea salt.
If you compare these ingredients lists, many of the ones in the first are highly processed, far different than what is found in nature, while most of the latter are similar to what is found in nature. One thing is certain—it is far easier to read the latter than the former, with the former containing many hard to pronounce items.
Maybe that last point is the best clue as to processing and healthiness to get from the idea of a five-ingredient limit—if it is easy to read the ingredients list, then the food is more likely to be unprocessed and healthy than a ingredients list that is difficult to read.
Added Refined Sugars
The next step would be to drill into that ingredients list and see exactly what the food contains. In both of my books, I discuss that common table sugar (white sugar) is a highly processed food. It is usually derived from sugar beets. The sugar in those beets is separated from all of the other elements in those beets, which is to say, from all of the nutrients, the water, and the fiber, with just the sugar left. The resulting white powder bears no resemblance to the original beets.
In my books, I cite the health detriments of eating refined white sugar, even citing statistics that show those whose diets contain a high amount of sugar tend to be overweight. The reason for that could be that a diet high in white sugar indicates a diet high in processed foods, as most processed foods contain sugar.
It must also be noted that the word “sugar” is just one of many words that could be found on a food ingredients label that indicates a refined sugar has been added to the food. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) would be the next most likely name to be seen.
Like white sugar, HFCS is a highly processed food that bears no resemblance to the corn that it is derived from. Again, all of the nutrients, the water, and the fiber have been removed, with just the sugar remaining. HFCS is even more common in processed foods that white sugar for the simple reason that it is cheaper.
The molecular make-of HFCS up is about the same as white sugar (half fructose and half glucose), so it is not unhealthier than white sugar as some claim, but that is not saying much. It is still very unhealthy, and a major cause of the obesity epidemic seen in the USA and other developed counties today.
Other names for refined sugars that might be seen on ingredients lists would be any names ending in “-ose,” such as fructose, glucose, dextrose, lactose, and maltose. There are many other names, too numerous to list here, but see the References for such lists.
But here, one sugar that needs special mentioned is honey. It is the only Biblical sweetener. I discuss in my books the possible differences between honey and refined sugar and explain why honey might be a better option. But I also say that even if it is a bit heather, it should still only be eaten in limited amounts, as the Bible itself teaches.
Moreover, the honey I am referring to is unprocessed honey, ideally raw honey. But the honey used in processed foods is highly processed, with any possible beneficial elements removed. Thus, its use in a processed food would not be any better than sugar.
The bottom line is, any food that contains any form of added sugars would be a processed food that is likely to be unhealthy. However:
There’s no reason to avoid the sugar that is naturally present in whole foods. Fruit, vegetables and dairy products naturally contain small amounts of sugar, but they also contain fiber, nutrients and various beneficial compounds. The negative health effects of high sugar consumption are due to the massive amount of added sugar that is present in the Western diet.
The most effective way to reduce your sugar intake is to eat mostly whole and unprocessed foods. However, if you decide to buy packaged foods, be on the lookout for the many different names that sugar goes by (Healthline. The 56).
Other Refined Carbs
In addition to added refined sugars, there are other forms of refined carbohydrate (carb) ingredients that might be found in a food. At the top of this list would be refined wheat flour. That is the first ingredient in Twinkies, though it is listed as “Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour.”
The reason why it is “enriched” is most all of the naturally occurring nutrients and fiber have been removed. I discuss the significant difference between refined white flour (even if it is “enriched”) and whole wheat flour in both of my books. But here, the result is the same as with refined sugars—the resultant food bears little resemblance to what is found in nature. You have almost pure carbs, with no nutritional value. And those empty calories are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
As with refined sugars, any food that contains refined flour by whatever name would be a processed food that is likely to be unhealthy.
Added Refined Oils
The next most common processed food ingredients that are found in processed foods are refined vegetable oils. These include sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and corn oil. What all of these oils have in common is the plant they are derived from contains little fat, so to get oil from them requires a lot of processing. In that processing, all of the original nutrients are removed, with the possible exception of vitamin E.
Thus, like white sugar, the resultant oils bear no resemblance to the original plant. And it must be noted that “plant” is the correct term rather than “food” as many of these oils are taken from non-edible plants. I doubt anyone reading this has ever eaten a safflower.
As for sunflower oil, it must be noted, it is just that, sunflower oil, not sunflower seed oil. Sunflower seeds are edible, but the flower is not. But once the flower is processed, we are supposed to think it is now a food.
Looking at canola oil, there is no canola plant. Canola oil actually comes from rape seeds. But since “rape oil” would not sell very well, and since the plant grows in Canada, it was renamed canola oil. I discuss the many possible problems with canola oil in my Eating Plan book.
Although soybeans and corn are foods, again, neither of these are very high in fat, so to get oil out of them requires a lot of processing.
Compare all of these with olive oil. It of course comes from olives, which are mostly fat. Thus, to get oil from them requires simple squeezing. That type of processing was found in Bible times, with olive oil being the only oil mentioned in Scripture. Some Bible versions might have just “oil” in many passages, but the underlying Hebrew or Greek words always specifically means olive oil.
Nut and seeds oils are a bit better in that at least nuts and seeds are mostly fat, so there is less processing needed to make them into oil. But still, generally, the resultant product is refined, so none of the original nutrients are left. It is possible to buy unrefined nut oils, but they are more expensive and thus not used in processed foods.
What most of these oils have in common (except olive and some nut oils) is they are high in omega 6 fatty acids. As a result, the diets of most Americans are too high in omega 6s, while too low in omega 3s. Although both of these are essential fatty acids, that imbalance of too many omega 6s in comparison to omega 3s is at the root of many health problems seen by Americans. Consequently, it is best to avoid refined oils and the processed foods they are found in and to get one’s essential fatty acids from more natural sources like whole nuts and seeds and olive oil, along with fish.
The bottom line is any food that contains any kind of refined vegetable oil would be a processed food that is likely to be unhealthy.
Also seen in the Twinkie ingredients list are items like Polysorbate 60, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Flavors, Yellow 5, and Red 40. These are all artificial ingredients. That means they are not taken from any edible foods found in nature. They are synthetic ingredients that God (or nature) never intended to be consumed.
Debates abound as to if such ingredients constitute a health risk. Many think they can increase the risk of cancer and other degenerative diseases, while other say they are safe at intended consumption levels. Whatever the truth there, it is certain there is nothing remotely healthy about them, meaning they do not contribute to good health. Moreover, many people, such as this writer, are sensitive to them. As a result, their removal from the diet could lead to a significant improvement in one’s health.
It is also certain their inclusion in a food would make that item a processed food and thus likely to be less healthy than a less processed food without such ingredients.
Higher Glycemic Response
I discuss the glycemic index in depth in both of my books, with a whole chapter devoted to it in my Eating Plan book. But in short here, the glycemic index is a measure of how much a food item raises then lowers blood sugar levels. A large spike then crash means the food has a high glycemic value, while a minor spike then drop means the food has a low glycemic value. The latter is considered to be healthier.
This difference is vital to know for those with diabetes (hyperglycemia or high blood sugar) and those like myself with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). But even those without blood sugar problems would benefit from keeping one’s blood sugar on an even keel. Eating foods that spike then crash the blood sugar can lead to loss of energy and excessive hunger, leading to overeating at the next meal.
Generally speaking, less processed foods have a lower glycemic response than more processed foods. The best example would be an apple versus apple juice. An apple has a lower glycemic response than apple juice. Ezekiel Bread has a lower glycemic response than white bread. Oatmeal has a lower glycemic response than Cheerios.
Determining the glycemic index of a food is a complex process, which I detail in my Eating Plan book. It is not as simple as looking at an ingredients list. But you can estimate the relative glycemic responses of a food just by looking at it and guessing how long it would take to dissolve if you dropped it into a pot of acid and stirred it around, which is what happens when eaten foods enter the stomach.
If you drop an apple into a pot of acid, it will take a bit of time for the acid to eat through and dissolve the whole apple. But if you pour a cup of apple juice into that pot, it is almost immediately dispersed, with no dissolving time required. A slice of Ezekiel Bread is far denser and heavier than a slice of white bread. Thus logically, it would take longer for the former to dissolve than the later. The same goes for oatmeal versus Cheerios. In each of these cases, the former food would be less processed and thus healthier than the latter.
The next standard is, if an alteration to the food does not significantly remove nutrients from a given food, then the food should not be classified as processed. But if it does, then it should be.
This point was already seen with white sugar, white flour, and refined vegetable oils. With all three, just about all the nutrients from the original food are removed. The same would go for converting fruit into fruit juice, at least on a commercial level. The resulting drink is almost pure sugar, with little of the original nutrients left and none of the fiber. The latter is why fruit juice has a higher glycemic response that whole fruit and why these are all processed foods, as is any combination food made with them.
However, if you make fruit juice yourself using a blender or Vitamix, using the whole fruit, then you will have retained all of the nutrients and fiber, and it would have a lower glycemic response than commercial fruit juice, though still higher than the original fruit. Such a homemade fruit juice would thus be processed, but not near as much as commercial fruit juice.
Some claim pasteurizing and homogenizing milk removes and alters the nutrients in milk, but that really is not so, at least in any appreciable amount. I discuss these controversial issues in my Creationist Diet book.
But what about protein powders? To convert milk, eggs, pea, rice, or whatever into a protein powder requires a lot of processing, removing most all of the fat and carbs, and grinding the original product into a powder. But in doing so, the desired nutrient, protein, is concentrated. And in the case of whey and casein protein powders, much of the calcium and other nutrients in milk are retained, so they are processed but not to the degree of losing all of the nutrients.
A bigger problem with protein powders is artificial sweeteners and/ or flavorings are often added, as those are definitely processed. It would thus be best that if you use protein powders, to choose ones that use all-natural ingredients, or to purchase unsweetened/ unflavored varieties and add your own sweetener and flavorings.
As for fermenting milk into cheese or yogurt, that process retains most all of the nutrients of milk, while altering the milk into a form that keeps longer than fresh milk. That is why it was done in ancient times and is still a benefit today. I noticed that when my electrical power went out during the time I was first working on this article. I was concerned much more about the milk than the cheese and yogurt in the fridge. But I saved all of them by putting then in a cooler outside in sub-freezing temperatures. After the 27-hour outage, they were all still fine, even the milk.
In any case, foods like yogurt are now known to provide health benefits due to the healthy bacteria found in them, as discussed in my books. Consequently, the fermenting processing method actually improves the healthiness of the original food.
As for methods of cooking vegetables, steaming is probably the best way to prepare vegetables, as there is little loss of nutrients. Microwaving would probably be a close second. Baking is also very good. The latter is my favorite way to cook vegetables. Spread the cut-up veggies on a flat baking tray, spray them with olive oil, sprinkle them with garlic salt and onion powder, then bake them for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees. That makes for a healthy and tasty way to prepare them.
All of these methods retain most of the nutrients, if the veggies are not overcooked. But boiling would be last, as there is much loss of nutrients. That loss can be eliminated if the water is used for soup or broth, but generally it is discarded, along with the nutrients that have seeped into it. Thus, in this case, the method that was probably most used in ancient times would be the worst, while newer methods would be preferred. But it should be not that in ancient times, that water was generally used for soup or broth.
Note: Some think microwaving is a “dangerous” way to cook foods. But I refute that notion in my article Microwave Ovens and Teflon: Dangerous or Not?
You Don’t Make It Yourself.
This last point I got from a video my niece-in-law posted on Facebook. I saved the video and posted it on my website, and I link to it in the References. But here, the basic idea is, “You can eat anything you want, just cook it yourself.” By “yourself” is meant from scratch, meaning starting with all one-ingredient foods and putting them together yourself. No prepared mixes or frozen combination foods.
The reasoning here is, homemade food is almost always healthier and less processed than store-bought food. Thus, you would just bake a potato at home, but you could buy French fries. A baked potato has just one ingredient, while fast food or store-bought frozen French fries might have many ingredients, with one of them surely being a refined vegetable oil.
Make it yourself is a good concept, but it depends on the one-ingredient foods you start with and what you do with them. My niece-in-law, for instance, commented on her own video, “Cookies every day!”
There is no doubt homemade cookies would be healthier and probably taste better than store-bought cookies. At the least, you would be avoiding the artificial ingredients usually found in store-bought cookies. But if you use refined white flour, refined white sugar, and refined vegetables oil to make them, it wouldn’t be that much of a difference. However, when I make cookies, I use sprouted-whole grain flour, raw honey or brown rice syrup, and unrefined peanut oil or peanut butter or a nut butter. Those would all be healthier and less processed than the former ingredients.
But even better would be to home cook the foods mentioned at the beginning of this article, namely veggies, meats, and one-ingredient grain foods like rice.
Defining a processed food is not easy. But the important point is to use the concept to choose healthier foods. And the place to begin is to look at the ingredients list. If it has a bunch of ingredients you cannot pronounce, it is probably a processed, unhealthy food.
If the ingredient list includes sugar of any name, white flour, however it is named, a vegetable oil other than extra virgin olive oil, or artificial ingredients, it is probably a processed unhealthy food.
If it is a combination food you bought in a box at a grocery store or ordered online, it is probably a processed food that is not very healthy.
But if you start with all one-ingredient, unrefined foods and combine and cook them yourself at home, you would have an unprocessed and healthy food. Of course, home-cooking takes more time than buying prepared foods. That is a point I discuss in my Creationist Diet book. But your health will be much better as a result.
For much more details and documentation of these points, see my two books on nutrition and the Bible. They are God-given Foods Eating Plan and Creationist Diet: Second Edition.
All italicized food names are registered names of the respective companies.
Cook it yourself video.
Foodcate. A Visual of Twinkies’ 37 Ingredients.
Healthline. The 56 Most Common Names for Sugar (Some Are Tricky).
Healthline Why Ezekiel Bread Is the Healthiest Bread You Can Eat.
Larabar. Our Products. Cherry Pie.
Milk Facts. Cheese Production.
Very well fit. Sugar’s Many Disguises.
What is a Processed Food? Copyright © 2019 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.
The above article was posted on this site April 1, 2019.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.
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