The Problems with Processed Foods

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This is an updated version of a post which first appeared in my blog in March of 2013

A great thing about a lower-carb way of eating is that it is naturally low in so-called "processed foods". On the other hand, it's perfectly possible to find processed foods that are low in carbs, or to include them in a moderate-carb diet.

We all know that "processed food is bad for you" in a sort of abstract sense.

We may think of the cereal aisle or a fast food restaurant when we think of "processed foods". But it turns out that most of the foods in the grocery store have ingredients that have each been manufactured in far-flung parts of the globe, and that food companies carefully combine them all to produce products (are they really "foods"?) which you could never make in your kitchen at home. Worse, these products have been very carefully developed to hook our brains into wanting more and more of them.

I'm reading two fascinating books about processed foods rights now: Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner, and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.

Warner opens her book with an anecdote: her husband bought some "freshly made" guacamole at the deli in the local grocery store. Now, Warner writes about the food industry, and there were a couple of ingredients in the guacamole she didn't recognize. She put the container into the fridge, intending to investigate, and promptly forgot about it...until 9 months later when her mother found it, opened it up, and dug in!

Ewwwww! But here's the kicker: you would never know to look at the stuff that it had been that long, and her mother lived to tell the tale! You might think, "Great! Guacamole that lasts for months"...or you might get suspicious, like Warner.  (When food doesn't rot, we should all be suspicious.)

It turns out that there are thousands of additives in foods that are not well-tested, or tested at all.

They are meant to preserve, increase stability and shelflife, improve mouthfeel, add "crunch", and manipulate our tastebuds and brains in ways to hopefully addict us.  They often take standard ingredients apart, sometimes to the molecular level, and put them back together into manufactured "foods" made to exacting specifications.  The ingredients often sound fine, but when you look under the hood, they are not what you think they are.  The resulting edible substances often aren't foods that anyone living 150 years ago would recognize, but fully standardized "products".

It turns out that one of the subs at Subway (Sweet Onion Chicken Terriaki) has...guess how many ingredients? 20? 50? 80? Nope. 100? Getting close! 105 ingredients.

It turns out that when a cereal box proclaims "high in Vitamin D", that vitamin D probably came from sheep's wool that was shipped from New Zealand to China. The oils in the wool are high in vitamin D, and that's where most of the Vitamin D added to foods comes from.

Michael Moss's book (Salt, Sugar, Fat) looks at how foods are formulated to "hook" us. In his investigations into the food industry, there was much talk of "bliss points" and how to make flavors hit the tongue (and brain) in certain ways that leave you wanting more. They need to have just the right amount of "crunch" and "chew" to keep you reaching for the bag of chips or cookies.  In fact, it turns out that these foods (which have been dubbed "hyperpalatable") actually trigger the reward centers in our brains in a similar way to addictive substances. 

In a related article in the New York Times ("The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food"), Moss relates a meeting of food industry executives in 1999 which was supposed to have the purpose of dealing with the fact that they were contributing to the obesity epidemic and might someday be held culpable. But they ended up figuring that their job was to sell food, not care about nutrition.

Of course, most of these foods are high in not only sugars and other refined carbohydrate, but soy oil and other seed oils high in Omega-6 fats which may be contributing to chronic disease by increasing inflammation.  These oils in large amounts are new to the human race.

It's so important to understand what we are putting into our bodies. I very much recommend these books if you want to know more. Both authors were interviewed for this episode of the Good Food show, starting at about the 25 minute mark (you can download the episode and then skip to that point if you like).

Interested in the books?

Pandora's Lunchbox by Melanie Warner

Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

Photo © Noel Hendrickson

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