Saturday, 20 February 2010

The P word

Food processing: is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw ingredients into food or to transform food into other forms for consumption by humans in the home or in the food industry.

One of the newer trends in nutrition and food is the idea that fresh, natural foods are healthier than processed foods. Sometimes the claims state that these foods contain more vitamins or minerals, or that they have lost fewer nutrients for the lack of processing, or even that processing can affect how the body digests the food. Sometimes, very little proof beyond the fact that it is more "natural" is used to hook buyers.


In general, it is true that the more a food is processed the more salt, sugar and other additives it may contain. However, as usual with food and nutrition there is often another side to the argument. One of which is that certain vitamins can be affected by shipping fresh foods and by freezing them before shipping can actually deliver to the consumer a more "fresh" product that is frozen. This is true mainly for fruits and vegetables.

Another fact remains that some foods cannot be eaten without certain processing taking place. For example, legumes or pulses such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils cannot be eaten dry. They must be "processed" (cooked) before our body can digest the fiber and protein they contain. Another example is meat (chicken, red meat pork)- it is unsafe for our body to consume these foods without cooking therefore we could never consume them without "processing".

Bread has been under fire over the last 20 years, one of the reasons (among many) being that it is a processed food. Without processing, we cannot consume wheat, oat, quinoa, or many other grains. If we continue with the example of bread, it cannot be made without processing. First the grains must be crushed to form flour (processing), then they must be combined with other ingredients (yeast, salt, sugar, water, etc) and cooked (processed).

Sea salt has been another rising star in the world of natural foods. You may have heard of such claims as that is contains less sodium (not true), it affects blood pressure less than regular table sat (untrue) and that it does not contain iodine which table salt often does (true but why is iodine bad exactly... they don't explain, likely because there is no reason or at least they have not thought up one yet).

As with most things in nutrition, there is no black and white, or good and bad foods. We must instead use our judgement before labeling foods as everyday foods or occasional foods. And don't forget to check your references! Obviously if a natural food company is trying to sell you their latest all natural, unprocessed sea salt they are going to market it as the prefect product.

Often rather healthy foods such as bread will be labeled bad due to a misunderstood rumor of processing, while other foods will rise to fame for undue claims (for example: spelt or Splenda). Learn how to read labels in order to determine if a processed food has been rendered less nutritious than its fresh counterpart.

Thanks to processing we can enjoy foods such as cheese, wine and dark chocolate. Who would argue with that!?
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