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

15 thoughts on “What Are Processed Foods?”

  1. I certainly don’t call anyone “gay” when I mean “naff.”

    That said, it is just semantics at a certain point. Like pornography, we know fake food when we see it. The rest of the “processing” discussion is all a matter of degree.

  2. Tomato, tomahtoe … the arguments can (and probably will) go on forever.
    There is no perfect world – we all have to just do the best we can with what we put into our mouths.
    Personally, I put TOO MUCH into my mouth.

  3. Good on you! Call it like you see it, or like it really is. “Processed foodstuffs” are just that, and a “troll” is a “troll”.

  4. Obviously the word “processed” incites controversy. My rather uneducated view is that “processed” means anything that has to be fortified to have any nutritional value or is a color not normally found in nature. I.e. that powdered cheese that comes from the boxed mac and cheese. You know the ones I’m talking about.

  5. And this post? Is why I don’t talk about my diet in any other terms than how it makes my stomach feel. I don’t want to be on the defensive, I don’t want to have to constantly defend my actions, and I sure as shit don’t want to be criticized for eating sauerkraut. I appreciate your recipes, and will allow you to get your feathers ruffled on my behalf. 🙂

  6. Hear, Hear, girlfriend! I agree that the troll’s comment should not be dignified with a response, as I’m sure he won’t read what you say anyway. Trolls are mostly deaf, after all. However, what you say is valuable and informative and needs to be said so that somebody willing to learn will absorb it. That troll completely missed the mark. As usual.

  7. You know, you just can’t argue with stupid. LOL

    In essence, unless you are eating the food EXACTLY as it appears in nature, peel, skin, bones, and all – you are in essence eating a processed food. You process a potato when you peel it.

    What “processed” means in the context of REAL food is anything that is preserved with a chemical whose name is hard to pronounce, to extend shelf life, make it palateable, or mask some other offensive quality of the food.

    Sure, mustard is processed. But you can pronounce vinegar, right? If not – well, go back to elementary – and there’s a nice school lunch program for you.

    Sure, fermented food is processed – but the last time I checked, there aren’t any anti-caking agents added to it, silicate to make the pouring rate faster, MSG to make the taste more addictive. Nope – there is just natural bacteria helping the food along its way.

    Nope – let little commenter person there enjoy their pineapple, with the peel and leaves still on. Dare she peel it, or remove the leaves, then she is processing it. I also hope she doesn’t want to take the meat off the bone to make something, because that’s processed too.

    In the end, the argument is nothing more than stupid, and rediculous. It makes for good rant material though. LOL

  8. A troll is a troll, a turd is a turd, and real food is REAL. No matter what you call it, it will always be a point of contention. I vote for “Chemically Deranged”, rather than “processed”

    1. That’s IT! Chemically Deranged. It fits. It works. now, just to make it a commonly accepted term. Like Pootie!

  9. “It is important to distinguish between food processing techniques that preserve or enhance the nutrients in food, and those that deplete them.” – Sally Fallon Morell

  10. I am OVER the term “processed” as being a bad trait in food. I don’t think much of Diana Hsieh, but on this point I agree with her.

    The Weston A. Price Foundation refers to these foods as *industrial* foods, which makes a good deal more sense to me. But you could in theory create a non-industrial food in an industrial setting, so I had to think about that some more.

    I finally came to the conclusion that if it is a food you cannot make in your kitchen without expensive equipment normally found only in food factories (and we’re not talking Cuisinarts here–how about cereal extruders?), then it’s not ever going to be good for you. But if it’s something you *could* make in your kitchen, it might be inferior in quality coming from a factory, but a factory-sliced ham is going to kill you less than Lucky Charms cereal will.

    It is a normal human impulse to want rigid rules about what foods are OK and which ones aren’t. It’s how the biggest garbage-guts on Earth managed to escape death by food poisoning umpteen-billionty times over the millenia. I do get it. But we have better tools now for assessing food nutrition and safety. There’s nothing wrong with *using* them.

  11. As long as you keep advocating for healthy food it’s a good call, and as soon as you start a crusade against – (everything fits there) well, not so.

    Sarcasm is always hard to get, I am sorry you didn’t get the message from the *anonymous* comment.

    1. Well, David, if you’re the same commenter you’re using a different email address (to say nothing of a different “name”). At any rate, you’re quite correct – sarcasm is extremely hard to detect in the written word, especially when you deal with as many…dissenting opinions, so to speak, from those with very different views (read: raw vegans) as I do. Nor was I aware that this post was a “crusade” against anything; I was just looking for a little clarification.

      But I must say, if you’re not the anonymous commenter from the Steak Tartare post, bully for you for being able to detect the sarcasm. You’re a better person than me, by far.

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