Limit Processed Foods

The quick answer:  Food Inc will continue to invent highly processed food-like substances as long as we’re willing to buy them.  Invest your money in real food, as minimally processed and close to Nature as practical.


Looking Back

In the food jungle, it’s on the buyer to beware of harmful food.  Emptor caveat, as they say.  The perpetrators of junk food wear a dignified title: Food scientist.  I’m acquainted with a food scientist.  He earned a PhD in the subject and spent his career as a college professor and consultant.  He’s one of the most dignified and honorable people you might ever meet.  So they’re not all necessarily bad guys.

Yet food scientists brought us the processed junk foods and fast foods of the 20th century.  You can’t blame this on any single person, it happened in small steps. But it’s said that future historians will look back on 20th century food in the same way we see the 19th century Irish Potato Famine, where a million people died of starvation while the world looked away   I fear more have died of the modern American diet (MAD) though we do die with full stomachs.  Small comfort.

Today wise people are turning away from the MAD and food scientists are on the defensive.  They see themselves as feeding the world through the innovation of new foods and food processes.  But others say their processes create today’s toxic food.  Are they apologetic?  Not that I can see—they defend their work and hope to invent even more processes and food-like inventions.  They’ll only change their ways when we stop buying.

20th Century Food Processing Binge

We need a minimal amount of food processing.  Milk must be turned to yogurt or cheese; cream to butter.  It’s good, I think, that the seasons of crops have been extended through packaging and better storage.   Processing, done within limits, can extend the shelf life of foods to get us through winter, or famine.  

But there were no limits to the industrialization of our food supply—processing changed the very nature of food.  Waste cottonseed was solvent-refined and hydrogenated to make Crisco, margarine, and then vegetable oil.  Later soybeans were genetically modified to provide a cheaper oil supply.  Nobody worried about trans fats, or the effects of refining and bleaching oil.

Animal-sourced gelatin and cheap sugar were combined to create a famous brand—Jell-O.  The roller mill made white, long-lasting flour that weevils wouldn’t eat by removing nutrients—think Wonder Bread

The Oreo cookie was a clever combination of refined sugar, refined flour, refined oil, and preservatives, plus a smidgen of cocoa.  Yes, I know it’s the 100th anniversary of the Oreo but please remember that our love for Oreos is also a measure of a food culture gone awry.  Whats more, no Oreo compares with Skip's Chocolate Oatmeal cookies (pictured above, recipe to follow).

In fact, many 20th century factory foods were just combinations of sugar, modified food starch (processed wheat, corn or soy flour), refined vegetable oils, and salt, plus emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring agents, and artificial flavoring.  The ingredients were cheap and deficient of nutrients; we foolishly accepted Food Inc's siren song that the value was in the brand, not the nutrients.

Man’s willingness to redesign Nature’s bounty got so out of hand that Gerald Wendt, science director of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, made the block-headed claim that in the future modern food “will abandon all pretense of imitating nature.” 

A further indictment of Food Inc is found in the book The Real Food RevivalIndustrially processed foods—convenience foods such as snacks, fast food, and heat-and-serve items that are processed by the vat full at a centralized factory—are the garbage dump of the food industry.”  (Italics added.)

Limits of Food Processing

Some processing is needed.  But the closer we can eat food to the form in which it was first created, the healthier we’ll be.  That’s a statement worth repeating:  The closer we can eat food to the form in which it was first created, the healthier we’ll be.

Or better said, the healthiness of food is related to how much processing is done by you, in your kitchen.  If you process—cook—it yourself, you’ll always know what’s been done to your food.  It’s the one place where we should be in control.

If you think long and hard about the proper limits of food processing, you might come up with rules like these three: 

  1. The Creation RuleShow reverence for the Creation by eating foods as close as practical to their natural form.  I’ve commented on this before, but there’s wisdom in the guidance found in the first chapter of Genesis.  In between the Creation of earth and man, the creation of our food supply is elucidated.  Eating natural foods shows reverence for the Creation.  This is not easy; humans hate boredom and love novelty.  Food Inc preys on this vulnerability by regularly introducing new shiny objects.  The key is a mature appreciation for natural food and a distain for Food Inc’s food-like counterfeits.
  2. The Century RuleWait three generations before eating man-made foods created from new processes.  Thanks to the FDA/USDA, new foods rarely bring acute toxicity.  But many are chronically unhealthy—harmful over the long term.  The Century Rule would have protected you from eating hydrogenated food products.  The first, Crisco, was introduced in 1911 and by 2011 just about everyone knew about the danger of trans fats, though many still ignore the problem. A new example is the butter-like spreads sold as margarine replacements.  They aren’t hydrogenated, but they are made with a newly introduced process called interesterification.  Is it healthy and wholesome over the long term?  Maybe, but no one knows for sure.  In our home, we’ll stick to butter.  We likewise avoid the puffed breakfast cereals and chips.
  3. The Fiber RuleCereal foods must contain more natural fiber than added sugar.  Fiber is a part of all plant products and processing generally removes it to make processed foods sweeter and whiter.  This rule requires whole grains be used and strictly limits added sugar.  It can be applied to breakfast cereals, breads, most snack foods, and bakery products.  In fact, this rule eliminates almost everything in the typical supermarket bakery or bread and breakfast aisle.

Food Inc will continue to offer new food-like substances, using cleverly deceptive advertising campaigns that ignore or obscure the truth.  It's how they make their money.  Protect yourself from such shiny objects by applying this Healthy Change:


Please comment:  Suggest foods you feel are appropriately processed, and healthy.  Tell us about processes you have learned to do for yourself. Got a better rule for defining minimal processing?  Please share it.

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Reader Comments (12)

My kids love cheese crackers (such as goldfish and cheese nips). I found a recipe to make them at home- with white or whole grain flour. They love the home made ones! They have very few ingredients and I feel they aren't to processed. I also make graham crackers and pop tarts. You can pretty much try to make a healthier version of anything they sell at the store. It takes more time, so we don't have them all that often. It is still hard to resist Oreos, though.

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I think it is a true balancing act to decide which foods you make at home and which you buy already processed. As a mother of three small children, saving time vs. good nutrition is also a big decision. I try to walk out of the grocery store with as few packaged products as possible, the majority of the cart being whole foods. I have found that good whole wheat pasta is a must because making my own pasta for a family of five kills me. Also pasta sauce, such as Paul Newman's, is a wise choice. My rule is to read the labels on everything, staying far away from high fructose corn syrup, msg, any kind of hydrogenated oil and white flour. If you can read the label, pronounce everything on it, and know what those ingredients are, it is probably safe. The laughable part of that is that sooooo few processed foods fall into that category :-) Be careful and read your labels.

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

We love dehydrating apple's this time of year! It's like candy

Great post!

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterange

I have lots of things I've stopped buying processed and do myself now:
I grind my own oat groats and wheat.
I try to buy items with the least amount of ingredients possible. Homemade is usually so much tastier, too...homemade mac and cheese vs. the blue box?? No comparison! I would love to find a good recipe for graham crackers!

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

I use the graham cracker recipe from heavenlyhomakers.com. She has tons of recipes using whole wheat. I usually sub whole spelt, but they are great with either one. You can just look under her recipes tab and I think they are under snacks.

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I just started reading "The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast" and it's changing the way I process my grains. So many things I didn't realize I was doing wrong, just because of using commercial yeast!

Has anyone else read that book?

September 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I make some of my own pasta: lasagna, manicotti, and fettucine. I tried making some others, but decided it would be worth it for me to buy those from the store. I make my own pasta sauce, enough for 2 or 3 batches at a time and freeze it. A great convenience. I need to get back in the habit of making my own granola bars. I make a big batch and freeze some as well.

September 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie B

I love this post! I make my own marinara, bread, jam, granola, applesauce (sometimes), enchilada sauce, salsa, almost anything I can do in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of cost savings, or at least trying to come out even. I do buy fruit leather, because you can buy the kind that only have fruit puree as the ingredients and it's only about 20 cents a piece if you buy it at Costco. That is worth the convenience to me. I also buy sour cream and Greek yogurt, although I am sure I could make them. I also buy the kinds that have the fewest ingredients, like basically milk and enzymes. I also buy pasta, but I have attempted making ravioli before. It was a lot of work, too much for me when I have 3 small children under foot. Maybe I'll do more pasta when my kids get older. I also have to admit to buying the uncooked tortillas from Costco. Our whole family LOVES them. They aren't healthy. They only have about 5 ingredients, which I like, but the ingredients are things like white flour and canola oil. I have tried to making homemade tortillas, but no one likes them much and I just don't want to take the time to do it. I have bought whole wheat tortillas, but all the varieties down here have trace amounts of hydrogenated oil :( Anyway, I am interested in the cheese cracker recipe mentioned above as well. My kids love cheese crackers. My mom use to make homemade wheat thin type crackers when I was growing up. They always tasted better than the ones in the box. I should ask her for the recipe....

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

I am slowly weaning my kids off of processed snacks. It's hard, but somebody's got to do it. :) I make whole wheat bread almost every week and have started to make more of our other breads as well. Cookies, for sure homemade, and recently tried drying pears and LOVED them. I also struggle to find the balance between making things and buying with 4 young children. Wish there were more hours in the day (and that I had a personal grocery shopper). I have also heard about "natural" yeast, but haven't tried it myself yet. Thanks for the cookie recipe, Skip!

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjulie

I am staying away from processed food more and more. I occasionally get the "there is nothing to snack on" from my kids, but there is plenty to snack on :) And I have to say that very rarely a package of oreos would somehow end up in our home until I found a recipe for homemade. I could never buy a package of oreos again! Here is the link for them http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2007/05/my-kingdom-for-a-glass-of-milk/ And I just add more butter for the filling instead of the shortening, and use half fresh ground wheat flour.

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmy (vintagefern)

Thanks for sharing the oreos recipe! I will have to try them - hopefully I will never need to buy real oreos again!

September 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Right now my husband and I are working on a whole foods diet. The rule I try to follow at the grocery store is "5 ingredients or less" and "if you can't pronounce an ingredient, don't eat it!". Seems to work alright so far. I don't buy things like cookies anymore. Even the local bakery switched from using butter to butter flavored shortening. I could taste the difference and it was disgusting.
I still buy whole wheat pasta and occasionally rice crackers, triscuits, or cheesy bunnies. And cereal...I don't eat it any more but my husband loves cold cereal (I found a recipes for homemade flakes and clusters...going to try that and see if he likes it!)

Also I have found that lots of recipes for things like cereal or crackers can be found for free on the Internet. Google search for them. Lots of food storage websites have them too. Or get books from your local library on whole foods or old fashioned cooking. Project Gutenburg and Amazon have a bunch of free e-cookbooks from the 19th century or early 20th...Amish cookbooks are good resources too!

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

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