Is It Safer to Eat Only Processed Foods?

We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons.

– Alfred E. Newman

There has been an outbreak of E. coli infections in Germany1.  At this moment, investigations are looking at contaminated cucumbers as the likely cause.

Killer cucumbers!  Why is it that hundreds of people are sick, and some have died, because they ate salad?  E. coli is a bacteria found in animals.  How did it contaminate cucumbers?  According to Time Magazine, the most likely causes of E. coli contamination of produce are that contaminated manure was used as fertilizer or contaminated water used for irrigation.

You might think that the safest thing to do would be to eat only processed foods.  In fact, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation2, processing foods does make them safer:

… heating foods helps remove harmful bacteria.  Pasteurization is a common heating process applied to milk to kill harmful organisms. Canning and freezing foods such as meats, fruits and vegetables helps them to stay fresher longer.

And according to the European Food Information Council:

Processing also improves food safety by a variety of methods– for example, heating to sufficiently high temperatures destroys harmful bacteria; certain additives help prevent fats going off (rancid) and prevent the growth of harmful fungus and bacteria; packaging helps to prevent product tampering.

Now that does sound reassuring.  I think that everything they say is true, but is that really all there is to it?  Maybe not.  What exactly are processed foods, and are there any reasons to avoid them?

First, I think it is obvious that almost all foods are processed to some extent.  When we cook our food we are in fact creating processed food.  Carlos Monteiro, a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, defines three types of processed food:

  1. Unprocessed or Minimal Processing:
    • No change in the nutritional properties of the food
  2. Culinary Processing:
    • Converts unprocessed or minimally processed food into culinary ingredients. (examples include oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours and pastas, and starches)
  3. Ultra Processing:
    • Combines culinary ingredients.  Some unprocessed foods may also be added.

But, last year, Marion Nestle wrote an article in the Atlantic, and quoted Monteiro:

the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.

That doesn’t sound good.  And there is more.  On the NAFWA (Nutrition and Food Web Archive) site, the Atlantic article and Professor Monteiro are mentioned again.  They go on to list other reasons why processed foods should be avoided:

  1. They provide a lot of calories but contain little nutrition
    • especially true if we consider foods containing refined sugars and starches
  2. They are addictive
    • many processed foods contain sugar and sodium both of which can be habit forming.
    • many processed foods are aggressively marketed (think about fast food)
  3. They contain dangerous food additives

Okay, so choosing what foods to eat isn’t simple at all.  Raw foods might be contaminated, but many processed foods are also bad for us.  It seems that if we want safe food that is good for us, we need to do some work.

  1. We need to find out where our foods come from and how they were produced.
  2. We need to find out what ingredients are in our food and learn what those ingredients do to us.
  3. We need to ensure our food has been properly cleaned and prepared.

What are your thoughts?  How do you ensure your family has safe and nutritious foods?  Please leave a comment and let me know.


1. Killer Bacteria Claims Victims in Germany, Sweden

2. Interesting to note that the board of trustees includes members from food processing companies Dannon, General Mills, Kraft, and Pepsico.

Posted in Fresh Food, Ingredients, Nutrition

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