People have been processing food since there were people. And Neanderthals may have done it, too, but that’s unclear. Processing food technically means doing anything to it before you eat it, whether it’s fermented beverages, cooked meat, noodles, pickled veggies, cured fish – you get it. So, processed foods are nothing new, and they used to be nothing bad. Until the US went through the Industrial Revolution. Leave it to us to ruin 200,000 years of a good thing.
The Downward Spiral into Spiral-Cut French Fries
Up until the late 18th to early 19th century, the cultural focus on food in this country was its nutritive value – how much it fills you up and gives you the things you need to stay healthy. But as militaries proliferated, populations boomed and industrial processes emerged, so, too, did the demand for expedient and easy-to-produce foods. The introduction of hermetic bottling, canning and pasteurization made this possible.
Along with that, cultural interactions across the country exposed people to other tastes, which, among many other factors, caused taste to become more important. At first, this was no big deal; yeah – that bread could use a little extra salt.
US food science spent the 20th century figuring out how to feed military during war time, with meal blocks and other packaged foods filled with nutrition. Flavorings were needed to make these taste not terrible. And as food science continued on even after the wars were over, artificial flavorings, new preservatives, and other chemical solutions to taste and shelf-life. A little extra salt became a lot. Sugars became processed and corn syrups were added to almost everything. Tang happened. SPAM happened. Potato chips happened. Nacho cheese with no actual cheese in it happened.
And that’s where things got a bit out of control.
Fat, Calories, Chemicals & Cholesterol: America’s Relationship with Food Today
There are logical reasons why processed food became and remains so massively popular, especially among the lower classes. It’s highly-available, high in calories, and it’s cheap. Plus, for families with two working parents and or families with turnkey kids, what’s more realistic – making a couple bags of mac n’ cheese in 20 minutes? Or grabbing fresh food at the market and making a 1.5 hour dish from scratch?
Plus, you’ve got the constant barrage of marketing, and we all know how convincing a Taco Bell commercial can be. But here’s the thing: we’re way past vitamin-packed military meals and canned bread. We’re in a reality where there are straight up poisons in our processed food. Some of the most common are:
Bisphenol A (BPA)
This chemical is used in plastics – think food containers, wrappers, cans, bottles. BPA leaches into the food or liquid that’s packaged in it, and has been linked to reproductive problems, heart disease and cancer. Look for a BPA-free label on the packaged food you buy.
Artificial Trans Fats
These fats are super unhealthy and are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. They’ve been linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. You’ll most often find these in fast food, fried foods, frozen dinners, and packaged baked goods.
These artificial preservatives are found in processed meats, especially bacon and deli meats. Excessive consumption has been linked to several types of cancer, especially colorectal cancer.
Sometimes added as a loophole for putting “No Added Sugars” on a food label, the most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose (tricky, because real sugar is called sucrose), and saccharin. These have been linked to metabolic problems, damage to the gut microbiome, and problems with long-term weight management. Look for natural zero-cal sweeteners like stevia instead.
Artificial Food Coloring
You’ll find these a lot in candies, desserts, and drinks; they’re used to make the product more visually appealing. However, dyes like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1 can cause behavioral changes in children, and allergic reactions, and have been linked to an increased risk of ADHD in children.
And what’s all this adding up to? An unhealthy, overweight, undernourished population of people, many of whom have no other options, that’s facing new emerging cancers and illnesses every day, some of which are contributed to by these chemicals. Ever heard of the PFAs in the water? Definitely check that out.
Ditching Processed Foods in a Realistic Way
Demographic and geographic inequality make it completely unreasonable to just say to someone – Hey! Eat more vegetables! There are educational, cultural, and financial barriers, just to name a few. What Americans really need are simple meal solutions without the artificial stuff. They need education on nutrition and how to analyze a nutrition label for any nasty stuff hiding in the ingredients. And these are challenges on a massive level.
Try simple switches, like:
- For mac n’ cheese, switch to all-natural or organic brands like Annie’s.
- Switch out an unhealthy side dish for a veggie at every meal. Where it may be hard to find or afford good fresh produce, you can always find fruits and veggies in the frozen section of the grocery store, and they’re often more affordable, too.
- Stop drinking soda or those Kool-Aid mixes that require 4 cups of sugar. Drink filtered water instead!
- Switch out white bread and noodles for the sprouted grain bread and rice noodles.
- Pop your own popcorn in avocado oil or ghee instead of those chemical-laden buttery microwave bags. It’s cheaper to buy that way, too.
- Eat less processed meats – deli meat, bacon, hot dogs, etc. have all been associated with health issues.
- Change the way you grocery shop. You don’t have to cut all your guilty pleasures or vital conveniences out in order to eat healthier. That being said, if you don’t buy the Cheetos, you can’t eat the Cheetos.
A really great idea, especially for working families and those really trying to solidify these changes in a way that doesn’t make their life way harder is meal prepping. Meal prepping has several advantages. One – you take a Sunday afternoon and literally all your meals for the week are made. Two – cooking things in big batches all at once is easier, less time-consuming, and often less wasteful, too. Three – you’ve got healthy, whole-food meals on hand every night of the week that anyone can make with just simple reheat.
So if you’ve been slightly-to-mostly grossed out by the chemicals described in this article, don’t resign yourself to a life of food that hurts your health. Here are some resources to help you get started on your journey to eating clean, the realistic way: