Processed foods are ‘bad’ and fresh home-cooked foods are ‘good’ – seems like an obvious statement right.
Referring to processed foods as bad is like saying ‘vegetables are green’ it is such a wide and sweeping statement that it has no fathomable way of being correct. Cooking is a process, mixing is a process, and these processes can add, subtract and change elements of the foods.
It demonises a huge category of food, in fact, the vast majority of supermarket produce, whilst ignoring the variety of content.
Sometimes the ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ food argument seems obvious with processed food. Shop-bought chocolate cake = processed and generally cake with its high sugar and saturated fat content is not a healthy food and should be enjoyed in moderation.
However, homemade chocolate cake – although not processed when made from scratch with so-called ‘real’ ingredients, it is not any healthier that it its processed counterpart.
Conversely, shop-bought yogurt = processed, but natural, full-fat yogurt, despite it being a processed food, contains many important minerals and nutrients, including protein and pro-biotics. It seems rather undeserving of the demonised title of a ‘bad’ processed food, compared to the unprocessed homemade cake.
The processed food debate has been further complicated by the recent declaration that processed meats, such as bacon and salamis can cause cancer. It is not the fact they have been processed that has led to this fact, it is the nature of their particular processing. A whole different story.
I compared a famous TV chef’s spaghetti carbonara with a top supermarkets, carbonara ready meal. The cookbook carbonara has 39% more calories, double the fat content and similar amounts of sugar and saturated fat. Neither are particularly healthy, both contain 60-80% of your daily saturated fat intake and very little in the way of vegetables. However, the mere fact of the ready meal being a processed food does not make it more unhealthy than cooking the meal yourself
A study by the British Medical Journal compared TV chef recipes and supermarket ready meals on a larger scale, and found that most contained more calories, protein, fat and saturated fat than the ready meals and significantly less fibre. So does making it yourself really make it healthier? Arguably not.
The key is to not label processed as ‘bad’ but to assess food products individually and in relation to your personal diet and requirements. A bag of sugary sweets is not ‘healthy’ but a processed, supermarket, chicken and sweet potato dinner might be, and its label as processed does not deter this.
What should we do?:
- Read the label – learn to check the ingredients and nutritional content – don’t be afraid of food just because it can be categorised as processed
- Look out for added sugars, trans fats, and lots of artificial ingredients
- Look for ingredients you know, eggs, wholegrains, vegetables etc.
- Stick to what we know – the media demonises and idolises like fashion statements, but scientists have been saying the same thing for years. No one disputes the health benefits of fruit, vegetables, lean meats, beans and wholegrains.
- Fight the fads: try to avoid the labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods – if we labelled all processed foods as ‘bad’, then most of the supermarket shelves would be off limits, leaving a boring and unvaried diet. A varied diet is a healthier one, as the range of nutrients and minerals we get from foods is varied and complex, and therefore the wider variety of foods we eat increases our consumption of all the diverse benefits.