Lunchables Hum, Turkey, and Crackers in Plastic Container

Hey, everyone. So I think the best way to start off this Food 101 series is with a post about processed food. Mainly because this is what we DO NOT serve here at Dig Inn – we’re all about making food from scratch (real raw ingredients) everyday at each of our how stores.

So let’s start off with the basics…

What is processed food?

Depending on how you look at it, almost all foods are processed to some degree. I like to think of processed food as broken down into two categories. There is bad food processing and there is normal food processing – what we do in our homes when we prepare dinner from scratch and what we do here at Dig Inn. In this post, I’ll be focusing on bad food processing.

Foods that fall into this category are foods produced in large factories that use excessive heating and cooling practices and chemical alteration to create the final product. These foods often include include incomprehensible ingredients that are derivatives of corn, soy, and/or chemicals. These are things like sodas and candy bars, as well as many processed deli meats and vegetables.

But the best way to explain this is through examples, of which I’ve included 3 below.

Peanut Butter

There aren’t many things I enjoy more than a good PB&J and not all peanut butter is processed in a destructive way, but, unfortunately, most peanut butter is heavily processed. Industrial food producers add hydrogenated vegetable oils to ground peanuts to prevent the natural separation that occurs when a jar of peanut butter sits on a shelf. We’ll be talking a lot more about the negative health consequences of hydrogenated vegetable oils in the coming weeks, but for the time being, trust me, they are not good.

Peanut butter on its own is a food that has an abundance of healthy unsaturated fatty acids (including oleic acid and monounsaturated fat), which are believed to be good for the heart. However, adding trans-fats for consumer appeal and increased shelf life cancels out these health benefits, making processed peanut butter a food that you should avoid. But not to worry, there are plenty of natural (i.e. processed in a good way) peanut butter brands available in most stores today.

Packaged Deli Meat

As with peanut butter, there are good packaged deli meats and there are bad packaged deli meats. On the good side, Plainville Farms is one example of a company that makes a delicious and healthful antibiotic-free deli meat. Unfortunately, companies like Plainville Farms are few and far between – most packaged deli meats are heavily processed and bad for you in several ways.

Industrial deli meat producers typically pump additives such as sodium nitrate, corn syrup, citric acid, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), a variety of sodium variants, and myriad other chemicals into the packaged deli meats you find in most stores. These are brands such as Hillshire Farms and Oscar Meyer. From a health perspective, Lunchables might as well be called “Untouchables.”

We’ll talk more about why all these chemicals are bad for you in our next Food 101 post, but here’s a simple rule of thumb – if the ingredients listed on the back of the package wouldn’t make sense to an¬†elementary school student¬†, then you should put the package done and walk away. Quickly.

Processed Frozen Vegetables

My mother always told me to eat my vegetables, but not all vegetables are created equal, in turns out. Unfortunately, processed frozen vegetables should be added to your “foods to avoid” list.

For large food corporations to distribute massive amounts of vegetables and avoid spreading food-borne diseases, they heavily process the vegetables before they are frozen. These companies often blanch or heat up the vegetables to remove bacteria and other things that would cause the vegetables to rot more quickly before freezing them. This process causes many nutrients to be lost, especially water soluble vitamins. In addition, as with deli meats, food companies add chemicals to these vegetables to extend shelf lives and bleach out impurities.

How do you avoid these processed frozen vegetables? Just buy the fresh produce available in the supermarket or, better yet, at the farmer’s market. Or if you’re looking for the convenience of frozen vegetables, there are good ones out there – just be sure to purchase vegetables that were flash frozen (a freezing process that locks in nutrients) without processing. Whole Foods offers several varieties of these unprocessed frozen veggies.

To be continued…

While food processing has been around for thousands of years and has helped us feed our military troops, relieve famines, and spend less time cooking, it comes with some definite drawbacks. In the next Food 101 post, I’ll explain more about processed food’s two biggest negatives – lack of nutritional value and bad additives.