Food processing is an integral part of the
human story. Cooking itself is an act of processing, as are many agricultural
techniques, fermentation practices, and preservation methods. The early days of
food processing helped humanity to expand by giving us a safe and reliable
source of food during migration events. With humans less bound to
time-consuming hunting and gathering practices, we were free to farm, fight,
and explore the Earth with a full belly.
Food processing has a big place in today's
world, with various methods used to stabilise food, store food, and extract new
taste sensations. Modern processed food has developed a bad name, however, with
processing practices now synonymous with high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt
diets. We have developed a range of new and very powerful processing
techniques, with colours, flavours, and preservatives added to food without
upping its nutritional value. While these additives may have cosmetic, sensory,
or economic value, they share little resemblance to real whole foods.
The situation is not clear cut, however,
with lots of processed food products offering a healthy nutritional profile.
Food packages highlight vitamins, protein, and fibre content, and published
figures are mostly accurate due to public health guidelines. Healthy food is
about more than nutrients, however, with the antioxidants, flavonoids, and
polyphenols in whole foods often taken away during processing. Even when
nutrients are added back in, like they often are with cereals, they're unlikely
to work in the same way.
There is another important factor to
consider, with processed ingredients often changing the nature of food
consumption. Eating ultra-processed food on a regular basis changes your
physiology and behaviour, with delicious and finely-tuned foods leading to more
cravings. Consuming these foods can increase the hunger hormone, which means
you don't feel full and eat more as a result. Due to increased sugar and fat
content, along with refined taste profiles, people generally eat processed
foods faster than whole foods. This can also be a problem, because you eat more
before you start to feel full.
Processed foods vary widely, both in their
nutritional profile and the additives they contain. If you're going to eat
these foods, and most people do, it's important to make smart decisions and be
clear about what you're consuming. While a diet high in ultra-processed foods
is not recommended, irregular processed food consumption is unlikely to risk
your long-term health. At the end of the day, a healthy diet is all about balance,
with tasty processed foods best treated as an occasional "additive"
to a healthy whole food diet.