Good Cure Question: What Are Processed Foods?

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Last Thursday I gave a controversial assignment as part of Week Two of The Kitchn Cure: I asked you to pitch your processed foods.

And the questions started rolling in about what, exactly, processed foods are?

Processed food is basically food that has been changed from its natural state for the sake of shelf life and safety, or for the sake of convenience. It all started when in the late 19th century, thanks to the invention of the refrigerator to keep food, and the train to transport it across great distances, we began to believe that we deserved to have food that lasted longer than when it was plucked from the earth, or caught running across our property.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Foods are processed in a variety of ways: canning, freezing, chopping, peeling, liquefying, fermenting, frying, gasification, spray drying, mixing, baking, and other cooking with other methods like boiling and grilling. Most of those don’t sound so bad, do they? After all, preserving food has an important place in food history, and there are some wonderful, healthy, ways of preserving foods. However, the processed food industry has largely gone too far in terms of chemicals and additives.

It is true that fresh produce and raw meats, are more likely to be hosts for pathogenic micro-organisms like Salmonella than, say, a can of Spam or boiled beets. The problem is that most methods used to process foods not only remove nutrients and flavor from foods, but give us a false sense of safety about our food.

For example, Vitamin C is destroyed by heat and so canned fruits have less Vitamin C than fresh ones. In general, the further from its original source food gets, both in distance and form, the less nutrients and flavor it holds onto.

Take the peach, for example. Peeling it isn’t so bad. Neither is boiling it, really. But peeling, boiling, immersing it in high fructose corn syrup, and then canning it leaves you with a food product that’s far from its original source. The thing you have in that can in your hand in early spring has little in common with the thing hanging on the tree during the summer.

Ask yourself, do I need these canned peaches? Now, if you must, look for ones that are not sweetened. Maybe in this case frozen fresh organic peaches are a better bet.

Now, of course, a sack of flour, for example, is a processed food when taking the term literally. But there is a greater difference between bleached and bromated all-purpose white flour (what most Americans use) and whole grain flour, or even unbleached, unbromated white flour. If you’re staring at your flour and wondering if you have to toss it because it is, yes, technically processed, do some critical thinking about how far off the flour is from its original state, and also, how useful it is to you.

I’m not suggesting you pitch all flour: I keep whole wheat and organic all-purposed unbleached white flour in my cupboard, because I use both. I see no reason, however, to ever use bleached flour, unless you want a perfectly white cake. And that’s silly. Bleached flour has a slightly lower percentage of protein, if that’s a concern to you, but I’m guessing we’re not dealing in such baking detail, at least not yet.