Ultra-Processing -- Food vs. Food (March 22, 2016)
Most people with even a passing interest in nutrition have heard some version of Michael Pollan’s seven-word summary of How To Eat. (It’s “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”) This tidy little rule of thumb can be applied beneficially to any of the many dietary religions currently out there, and I am much enamored of it.
The first part of his statement is what I’d like to focus on today -- the “eat food” part. Here Mr. Pollan is not implying that we need to stop chowing down on pine cones and cement, but is telling us that we should be eating REAL food. Meaning edible items that contribute nutritionally to the diet and which are in as unprocessed a state as possible.
Right away some people are yelling “foul”. They will point out that some foods need to be cooked, which is a form of processing, in order to make them edible at all. They will tell you that calories have historically been the nutrient most deficient in human diets. And they will assert that if it wasn’t for a lot of the food processing currently being done, a good part of the world’s population might not be eating at all. They are right, of course, and just because these are the same people who first told you that Santa Claus didn’t exist doesn’t mean you can argue with them any more effectively now than you could when you were eight years old.
But all they are really doing is trying to show off how smart they are. Because if you are lucky enough to actually have a choice of foods, there isn’t much doubt that the more basic your diet is, the better it will be. And in light of that, I think a brief look at the concept of ultra-processing might be of interest. Once you have that idea, it suggests a practically-no-sweat way to improve one's daily eating. Which sounds fabulous to me, because I’m all about not sweating.
A genuinely smart guy by the name of Dr. Carlos Monteiro has been researching and writing on the subject of the ultra-processing of food for some years now. A recent data analysis of his established that over half of the calories and 90% of the added sugars in the American diet come from ultra-processed foods. This is huge, because per Michael Pollan’s definition ultra-processed foods don’t really even qualify as food. So we will call such items “food thingies” for the remainder of this essay.
Here are the three categories of food processing that Dr. Monteiro describes.
1) No or minimal processing. Wiping the dirt off a carrot you just pulled out of your garden, drying, pasteurizing, parboiling and the like are included here. The key point is that these foods are those that haven’t had their original nutritional state significantly changed. Fresh or unsweetened dried fruit, dried beans, and fresh, frozen or canned tuna fish are examples.
2) “Processed” foods or processed food ingredients. (“Ingredients” means things like table salt, sugar and olive oil – they are items that you might cook with at home.) If you extract something from a food in the first category (like removing the fat from milk to make skim milk) or alter those foods using these ingredients (giving you things like cheese, olives, or salted peanuts) you’ve got a processed food.
3) Then there is the last category, “ultra-processed foods” or manufactured food products. (Sounds yummy, huh?) If you collect a few processed foods together and then add things such as emulsifiers, preservatives and the like that you wouldn’t be caught dead using at home, the resultant food thingie is an ultra-processed food. This food thingie resembles an item from the second category, but it really isn’t. The five most common edibles in the U.S. are all food thingies – sugary soft drinks, cakes and pastries, burgers, pizza and chips.
Again, I hear cries of protest. Surely a burger is category two? Well, it depends on the burger, now, doesn’t it. You might be able to fix a nice category two burger at home, but forget getting a franchised fast-food one.
Which brings us to the next point. A food thingie is designed to be very palatable, shelf-stable, and profitable for the manufacturer (and sometimes fairly cheap for the consumer as well). They are also way higher than real food in sodium, calories and calorie density, sugars and much lower in vitamins, minerals, fiber and all the complex substances you find in real food that we still know little about but probably play a big role in human nutrition. And that’s not even to mention the weird chemicals used in ultra-processing that you would never use at home in the kitchen.
If you eat a lot of food thingies (and remember, over half the American diet consists of this stuff) you aren’t only undernourished, but your appetite and satiety metabolisms are being yanked and pulled every which way. No wonder there’s a lot of overeating going on. Dr. Monteiro lays the blame for this, and the resulting epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases, square on our over-consumption of food thingies, and you’ve got to admit that he has a point.
So here is what I take away from this. Most of us could greatly improve the quality of our diets (and not freak our bodies out one little bit) by substituting foods from the first two categories for food thingies. If there is one food thingie you’re eating regularly, finding a real-food substitution for it would be doing your body a great kindness.
Here are a couple of suggestions. A bowl of real oatmeal with a little brown sugar and a few raisins instead of one of those oatmeal packets (or, even worse, a granola bar). String cheese, a few nuts and an apple instead of a Lunchable. (I can’t believe they still make those things.) Peanut butter on some Mary’s Gone Crackers or 100% whole wheat crackers instead of a packet of those cardboardy type cracker-cheese things. You get the picture.
This may sound a little gimmicky to you. It is not. And gimmicks are underappreciated anyway. Much of human destiny is steered by gimmicks. Look at Red Rose Tea. They almost went bankrupt in the 1960s until they started putting tiny ceramic figurines in their boxes of tea bags. Lo and behold, the company was saved. Not because they make great tea (although they do) but because they put TOYS in their food.
By the way, I have a big box full of those little ceramic figurines, which I’ll let go for 25 cents each or $2 per set.
So don’t think of this as a diet gimmick. Consider it a painless and easy way to add some genuine nutrition and subtract a little bit of junk from what you’re already comfortable eating.
There is one mistake you might very easily make at this point, which also happens to be a particular sore point with me. I’ll discuss that next time.
So eat food. Not too much of it. Mostly plants. And for the times when you AREN’T doing that, try this very simple, very nice little diet fix, and give yourself a hearty cheer.
--dr. diane holmes
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