We are constantly reminded to either cut down or totally avoid ‘processed foods’ as one of the ‘5 ways to improve your diet’ on social media feeds and the like. But do we know what a processed food is, could there be a better definition for the type of foods we could benefit health-wise from avoiding, and would it help those newly embarking on a healthier lifestyle journey better understand this popular category of food.

For those of us already on our journey to better health, we may not feel we need this to be further explained or defined, or do we? You’re right if you think of items such as biscuits, crisps and soft drinks. But actually most foods we eat are processed.

Food processing, in its true sense, is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. Food processing typically takes clean, harvested crops or butchered animal products and uses these to produce attractive, marketable and often long shelf-life food products. It can be as simple as freezing meat or drying fruit, to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a breakfast cereal with added nutrients and preservatives.

Lets take a look at the Raw Food movement, and as a food example, one of Raw Imaginations beautiful creations, the BLT. The ingredients include coconut chips, sunflower seeds, flax, onion, cold pressed olive oil, cashew nuts, coconut aminos, lemon, tomatoes, reverse osmosis water, garlic, lettuce, maple syrup, raw apple cider vinegar, smoked paprika, himalayan salt. The coconut is shredded and dehydrated, the olive oil is pressed, coconut aminos are made from the aged tree sap, apple cider vinegar goes through a couple of fermentation processes, and many of the ingredients are mixed and dehydrated to make the bread portion of the sandwich. Its yummy, and a lot of the raw foodies enjoying this lunch would be proud to claim they are eating a diet of unprocessed foods, but in a sense, they are not.

Not to go through every diet out there available to us, but just to balance it out and not seem as if I am singling out one particular way of eating, but lets look at paleo foodies. The majority would also claim they are enjoying ‘clean’ and ‘unprocessed’ foods. But they do allow alcohol, which is processed, stevia as a sweetener, which is processed, coffee, which is processed, almond milk, which is processed, the list goes on.

I came across one paleo ready made food company advertising “100% Unprocessed Gourmet Meals Delivered To Your Door”. If we were to stick to the true definition of processed here, I’d expect, for example, a delivery of a cow (alive), muddy sweet potatoes, potted herbs, whole coconuts to make your own coconut oil …… you catch my drift?

Now, you see, not all processed foods should be banished to the pantries of hell. The so called ‘processed’ foods most commonly considered as seriously health compromising should either be defined as ‘artificial food’, ‘foodstuffs’, ‘unnaturally processed’ or ‘non-traditionally processed’.

Take a look at the ingredients of the humble Walkers crisp, Thai Sweet Chilli flavour: ‘Potatoes, Sunflower Oil (21%), Rapeseed Oil, Thai Sweet Chilli Seasoning, Salt, Firming Agent (Calcium Chloride),Thai Sweet Chilli Seasoning contains: Sugar, Fructose, Flavouring, Dried BUTTERMILK, Dried Tomato, Dried Onion, Hydrolysed SOYA Protein, Dried Garlic, Dried SOY Sauce (made with WHEAT), Herbs, Basil Extract, Dried Green & Red Peppers, Red Pepper Oil, Chilli Powder, Colour (Paprika Extract)’.

Scary? Is there anything on there where we’d need a degree in food manufacturing to actually know what it is, where it came from, the process in which it was made and what is its purpose. Lets look at one of the ingredients, hydrolysed SOYA protein.

Where did it come from?

Tate and Lyle is one of the European manufacturers but not the only one. One of the main suppliers of soy to the European market is South America.

What exactly is it and what’s its use?

It’s a foodstuff obtained by protein hydrolysis and used as an ingredient with a boullion taste.

How is it made?

The soy is cooked with a diluted hydrochloric acid to extract the aminos (proteins), then after cooling, the hydrolysate is neutralised with either sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide. The hydrolysate is filtered to remove insoluble carbohydrate fraction and then further refined. Is this actually food?

So, a new definition of these ‘food imposters’ could be defined as ‘any food product that is created or assembled in a radically non-traditional means, especially using industrial or chemical processes that did not exist when the original recipe was developed and/or bear little resemblance to the methods a home cook or baker might use to create a similar product’. What do you think?