Let’s All Just Chill About Processed Foods

You are you and I am me because of processed foods, because our ancestors learned how to cook meat and make bread and, perhaps more importantly, beer. Accordingly, our brains grew and our guts transformed. But those two words smashed together, processed foods, take on new terror in this era of organic, locally sourced, artisanal, cage-free, free-range, I-want-to-know-the-given-name-of-the-chicken-I’m-eating food.

Into this zeitgeist of culinary purity waltzes the plant-based meat movement, providing beef alternatives that are about as processed as processed can be. The Impossible Burger, for instance, is engineered taste by taste, smell by smell, texture by texture, to replicate ground beef—the stuff even bleeds like the real thing. KFC is testing plant-based chicken nuggets and wings. But some chains like Chipotle are crying foul, saying the stuff is too processed for their delicate tastes. (This is Chipotle, after all: that bastion of healthiness where a typical meal packs more than 1,000 calories, along with a massive amount of sodium and saturated fat.)

But it’s time to get real about processed foods. For one, processed doesn’t have to mean unhealthy, and indeed it’s only because of certain processed foods that people around the world get the nutrition they need. Two, processed foods keep better, cutting down on food waste. And three, if we expect to feed a growing population on a planet with finite arable land, we have to engineer new sources of food, protein in particular.

The core of the confusion around processed foods is definitional. According to the Institute of Food Technologists, processing is—and get ready for this—“one or more of a range of operations, including washing, grinding, mixing, cooling, storing, heating, freezing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, frying, drying, concentrating, pressurizing, irradiating, microwaving, and packaging.”

So … virtually everything you put in your mouth is processed. “Highly refined foods like yogurt, olive oil, and bread have many, many processing steps, and they don’t look anything like the original product they started with,” says Connie Weaver, a nutrition scientist at Purdue University.

Processed foods can be essential for human health. Iodized salt, for instance, has helped people the world over get the iodine their bodies need to function. “There’s this really confusing nomenclature going around right now, with this idea that we can classify food as being good or bad based on its degree of processing,” says Ruth MacDonald, a nutrition scientist and registered dietician at Iowa State University. “And it makes no sense from a nutritional perspective, and it really makes no sense from a food science perspective either.”

What people likely mean when they invoke processing has more to do with ingredients. Any bread will involve grinding, mixing, fermenting, and heating. But white bread goes through an extra step to bleach the flour, which removes some natural nutrients, which are later added back in to make it fortified. And something like a Twinkie takes processing to a whole new level, with added corn syrup and, for good measure, high fructose corn syrup thrown in as well.

It’s the added ingredients that have given processed foods a bad name, because while not all processed foods are junk foods, all junk foods are processed. Supercharging taste with saturated fat, sugar, or salt can be easy, but they’re unhealthy hacks when taken too far.

What this means is that, as consumers, we should be asking questions not about the processing so much as the ingredients. The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, from Beyond Meat, aren’t what you’d call health foods. For every 4 ounces, you get 14 grams of fat from Impossible and 18 grams from Beyond, compared to 23 grams from 80 percent lean ground beef. Looking at the calories, it’s 240 for Impossible, 250 for Beyond, and 288 for beef. But sodium is where the plant-based alternatives go wild: 370 mg for Impossible and 390 mg for Beyond, compared to just 75 mg for the real thing. In fairness, being plant-based, Impossible and Beyond incorporate fiber, which is nil in real beef, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

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