Our Food and Health in Transition
“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” - Ann Wigmore
OUR FOOD AND HEALTH IN TRANSITION (PART 1)
I stumbled across this quote the other day and found the message to be quite powerful. As a dietitian, I suppose I have always believed that food was our best medicine, however, we are only now beginning to recognize how this powerful medicine can also lead to our demise.
At present, our nation is a prime living example. Culminated by the industrial revolution of the 19th century, our food supply suddenly became very rich in ultraprocessed food products while at the same time, becoming very poor in nutrient dense foods. With the ultraprocessing of foods comes a dramatic change in the nutritional composition of our food. Most notably, ultraprocessed foods tend to be higher in energy (calories); lower in fiber; virtually without phytochemicals (plant based chemicals that protect the body from disease); high glycemic; and low in nutrients (vitamins and minerals). To clarify, “processed foods” can come in many forms. Technically, even home canning is a form of processing, or taking a food from its original state to one that can be preserved longer than its natural form would allow. As increasingly more people began working outside of the home, the demand for convenience in foods rose dramatically! With the demand came the supply and the technology for an increasing complexity of processing. The question is, with all of our intelligence and innovation, are we ignorantly killing ourselves?
While there are no clear standards to define processing, there are three tiers that have been formed to generally define the levels of food processing. The three tiers, in order of complexity, begins with “minimally processed”, “processed” being the second, and “highly processed or ultraprocessed” foods being the third. Examples of the three tiers of processing would include, frozen vegetables, or a gallon of milk (minimally processed); oils, sugar, or flour (processed culinary ingredients; foods that are rarely eaten alone); and a t.v. dinner, chips, or hotdogs (ultraprocessed). The first tier of processing results in very minimal nutrient loss and the food, in general, maintains its original form. Types of processing that occur in minimally processed foods include heat, removal of inedible parts, packaging, freezing, and canning.
The second tier of processing can typically be thought of as foods that are rarely eaten alone. They are foods that are purchased with the intent to combine with other foods in cooking. Nutritionally, these foods tend to become higher in calories, and contain less nutrients. Physically, processed foods have undergone a fairly radical transition from their original form. This transition requires processing methods such as milling, crushing and exposure to chemicals.
Finally, our ultraprocessed foods. These foods are made from the combination of unprocessed (fruits, vegetables, and meat), processed food ingredients (margarine, oil, flour, etc.), and sometimes man made additives (preservatives, coloring, etc.). As a result the food has been transformed dramatically from its original form (e.g. a grain of wheat looks much different than a slice of bread). In this transformation, the original flavor of foods can be lost. To compensate for this, and to ensure that consumers continue to buy a product, our favorite flavoring agents are frequently pumped back into the final ultraprocessed product. As you may have guessed, those popular flavoring agents are sugar, salt, and fat! Because companies can only stay in business if you keep buying their product, the proportion of sugar, salt, and fat in the end product is often huge! To further confuse the concept, foods in this category have a wide range of nutritional value. Consider our grains. White flour has been mechanically processed to remove the germ and bran from the grain, leaving behind the endosperm. The endosperm is the starch, or carbohydrate component of the plant. While the carbohydrate is a good source of glucose for the body, it’s the germ and bran that contribute all of the vitamins and minerals. So, yes, white bread is of nutritional value because of its contribution of glucose to the body. However, whole grain bread, which includes the germ and bran in the final product, is of considerably greater nutritional value. Per definition, white bread and whole grain bread are both highly processed foods yet one is considerably more nutritious than the other. To take it a step further, compare a slice of sandwich bread to another “ultraprocessed” food such as the iconic twinkie and suddenly the white bread looks like a super food nutritionally! Its no wonder that we, as consumers, are so confused by what is considered a processed food! What we have been lead to believe is that processed foods are bad for our health. Or are they?
By nature, as soon as a fruit or vegetable has been picked it will begin to degrade. Likewise, once an animal is killed for meat, the meat too begins break down. So processing, despite the negative connotation commonly associated with it, has provided some essential benefits to our food supply. Without the ability to process foods, our food supply would be drastically smaller as foods perished more quickly. When food supplies diminish, people go hungry. When people are hungry their inhibitions towards eating food of questionable safety are reduced. So perhaps one of the greatest outcomes of food processing has been in food safety. Heating, food preservatives (while that’s another health topic in itself!), freezing, and the addition of salt and sugar have all allowed our food to stay fresher, longer. Not only does it stay fresher longer, but fewer people are dying from food born illnesses. Now that’s not such a bad thing!
We have also benefitted from processing through the act of enriching foods, or adding extra nutrients to foods after they have been processed. In 1998 the government required processed grains be enriched with folate. Following this mandate, the prevalence of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in new born children dropped dramatically.
Lastly, there is something to be said about the benefit of convenience enjoyed from the processing of foods. Unlike most households 75 years ago, the job of “homemaker” is less common. Today both adults are working to support a family. Furthermore, there are more split families, therefore, more homes with only one adult trying to play the role of homemaker AND income provider. Where does that leave time for cooking? Clearly, foods that are quick to prepare have enabled us to manage our work load with the necessity to eat. As you can see, we are not without benefit from the invention of food processing. Likewise, we are not without consequences from the development of processing.
This is the first part in a discussion of processed foods, what they are, and how they have played a beneficial role on our health. Stay posted for the second half of the discussion to learn about the other impact processed foods have had on our society.