The Skinny on Processed Food

5 May

I’m just about to launch into the Real Food Reset program that my friend Rachele from Fantastically Fresh and Fit and I have been working on for a couple of weeks now, and seriously, I couldn’t be more excited. We have our Facebook group up and running a few days early and I have already realized that we have the raddest group of people on board, like, ever.  I’m  blown away by the amount of participation and interest we have going on, and we haven’t even officially begun.

We’ve already had some seriously insightful, thought-provoking questions come up, but the one that really stumped me was  “so….how exactly does one know if food is processed?”

I know, right? Like, that shouldn’t have taken me so long to answer.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that “processed” is a rather broad term.  If you’re not picking up what I’m putting down, consider this: we process our own foods when we chop, cook, or do anything to chemically alter the original nature of a food.  There are also plenty of foods that have been processed for thousands of years – such as bread and cheese (although though both were considerably more nutritious before mass production), that aren’t necessarily the worst thing for you to eat, if done right.

Point is, plenty of healthy, nutritious foods are processed on some level, and I’m not sure how realistic it is to only eat completely non-“processed” foods, 100% of the time. So, for the sake of ease and realism, let’s talk about identifying the more highly processed foods- foods that have been altered, added to, and preserved to the point where they’re further from their original state than they are close to it.

Here’s a little bit of a 101 when it comes to ID’ing processed foods:


1. It comes in a bag, can, or package. (example: food that comes in a bag, can, or package- I know, I’m brilliant, don’t be intimidated)

There are  exceptions to this rule – such as dry beans in a bag, flash-frozen produce without additives, or genuinely healthy/”whole” versions of such foods. To determine how processed a packaged food is, look for additives, preservatives, high sodium/sugar level,s and words you can’t identify or pronounce. Two good rules of thumb are 1. the fewer ingredients, the better and 2. if you can’t pronounce it, you might not want to eat it.

2. Food that has been altered so much that it no longer offers the same benefits as it would in it’s natural state.

For example: real yogurt is made of milk, cultures, and not much else.  However, Yoplait Light Black Cherry Yogurt – which sounds harmless enough and is marketed as a healthy snack, has an ingredient list that reads as follows: Cultered, pasteurized nonfat milk, modified corn starch, cherries, sugar, gelatin, citric acid, Malic acid, aspartame, Tricalcium phosphate, Sorbate, Acesulfame, Red #40, Blue #1, Vitamin D.

See where I’m going with this?

I know this is real life and you probably have a job, or a family, or whatever, so homemade yogurt might not be part of your reality. But, you can still look for brands that have few, but identifiable, ingredients.

3. It doesn’t go bad.

Food should have a quick(ish) expiration date. Processed food might outlive your goldfish. Creepy.

4. My personal favorite: a food that can’t be harvested, hunted, or picked (or baked/ created from that criteria with few additives). 

This is pretty much the hardcore, true definition of unprocessed food.  Is eating this way possible 100% of the time? Maybe, but I’m definitely not a “100% of the time” kinda girl. (+ I’m the first to admit, I love me some nachos, I dig cheese and crackers, and I am also quite certain that wine has been processed. I like to follow the 80/20 rule, so you better believe these things do make their way into my life on occasion)

So, if you’re on a mission to clean up your diet a bit, the simple act of increasing the whole foods (fruits, veggies, complex minimally processed carbs, eggs, free range meat, etc) in your life will almost automatically reduce the amount of processed food you consume. Start slowly and keep adding, and I’m willing to be that before you know it, the processed foods will make their way out of your pantry and back to the middle of the grocery store where they belong.





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