Live Real. Eat Real.

What Are Processed Foods?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a recipe for Steak Tartare, partly because it was delicious, but partly to make a point about processed foods – you can’t get much less processed than raw meat.

It seems someone took exception to that, because I got an anonymous comment about it – particularly, the condiments mixed in and served with the raw meat.

Beef: salted and aged
mustard: processed almost exactly like grains, then stored in a fermented substance (wine or vinegar)
Worcestershire sauce: nobody knows how it’s made, but it’s pretty certain that it involves several decades and at least five different cooking methods, to say nothing of the anchovies and brown sugar
capers: pickled
gherkins: pickled in both salt and vinegar
anchovies: cooked, pickled, canned
salt: purified from rocks or sea water to make sure no algae remains
black pepper: hulled (to remove fruit), washed, and ground, like a grain

Nope, no processing here at all.

Then, earlier this week I read a review of a children’s book, Paleo Pals: Jimmy and the Carrot Rocket Ship, by Diana Hsieh at Modern Paleo. Now, Diana does not have children (and yes, I think that has a bearing on her review) and she didn’t like the book, calling it propaganda.  That’s fine – she gave a glowing review to Eat Like a Dinosaur, which I’ll review next week (and be a tad more critical), and that’s fine, too.  But I do take exception to these statements:

Farms can and do produce unhealthy SAD foods, and factories can produce healthy paleo foods. Similarly, “processed” foods are not inherently bad, as some people seem to think. All fermented foods — like kombucha, kefir, and sauerkraut — are “processed” foods. Anything cooked is “processed.” That some food is processed — or even processed in large batches under strict conditions (i.e. industrially) — reveals little about its nutritional value.

Oh, come off it – you’re arguing semantics here, people.

While there’s no doubt whatsoever that fermenting, pickling and cooking are processing methods, no one really refers to food which undergo such procedures as “processed.”  All of the methods mentioned here help make the nutrients in food become more easily available to our bodies.  What we call processed foods – foods that are chemically extracted, refined, extruded and denatured – suffer exactly the opposite fate:  they strip foods of their nutrients, filling us, but not really nourishing us.  In the cases of some industrially processed foods, such as so-called “vegetable” oils, they even do us harm.

To my anonymous guest, our meat for our tartare may have been aged, but it was not salted.  The anchovies I used in the dish were smoked.  Worcestershire sauce is no big mystery.  Salt is an essential nutrient for our bodies; since I purchase Real Salt almost exclusively, algae isn’t a problem – but I really do prefer my salt without sand.  And there are so many differences between the harvesting and end products of black peppercorns, mustard seeds and wheat flour, I hesitate to even dignify your claim with a response.  You can pop a mustard seed in your mouth and eat it – you can not do so with a wheat berry.  It must be ground, then cooked with other ingredients, before it can be eaten (to say nothing of palatable).  And while just about any food can cause an allergic reaction, mustard included, the damage done to our bodies – AND the environment – by grains are unparalleled.  Whoever you are, you’re nit-picking.  Arguing for the sake of argument.

As for Ms. Hsieh, whose libertarian and objectivist sensibilities I admire, I agree:  farms can and do produce unhealthy foods.  And thanks to government subsidies, they produce a LOT of them.  These unhealthy foods – wheat, corn, and soy top the list – are the cornerstone of the products most of us are referring to when we speak of “processed.”  Products in brightly colored packages with a long shelf life, containing large amounts of sugar, salt and industrial seed oils to make them appealing, but with no real value as food.  Not only that, but because of those very government subsidies, these nutritionally void foodstuffs have been made artificially cheap, making them even more appealing.

Yes, factories can produce healthy foods; I, personally, would rather buy my organic, free trade coconut milk in BPA-free cans than take the time and effort to make it myself (it can be done).  When I run out of home-canned foods, I am appreciative of the fact that I can bop down to the grocery store and buy canned tomato sauce or green beans.  I like that, if the mood strikes me, I can buy frozen brussels sprouts out of season.  But those healthy foods produced in factories are incredibly outnumbered by the industrially processed non-foods we should all avoid.

And when was the last time you saw a massive marketing campaign attempting to convince you that a frozen brussels sprout is healthy?

For what it’s worth, I’d be very interested in hearing just how both of you feel we should differentiate between whole foods that have been pickled, fermented and cooked and those brightly colored packages containing industrially denatured non-foods.  For now, we refer to those non-foods as “processed”; until someone comes up with something more descriptive and manages to make it common lexicon, that’s what I’ll stick with.  Commonly accepted terms matter.

After all, do you tell people you’re “gay” when you’re happy?

Posted in participation of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday

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