Process This: What exactly ARE you eating?

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably on the same page as me in many ways, including trying to eat as many whole foods as possible. However, I’ve been increasingly aware that it becomes an even trickier challenge to avoid processed foods if you are vegetarian or vegan. How unfair, right? Here we are, saving the planet, one (less) animal at a time, and then we’re hit with a barrage of chemicals and soy protein isolates! Until recently, I assumed that most foods sans animals were, by that slim definition, if not exactly good for me, then certainly not that bad, either. I also surmised that having vitamins and minerals added to certain “fortified” foods could only be beneficial.  Yes, I’m one of those who do judge a bottle of wine or a cereal box by its label; I’m one of those who want to believe processed foods – especially items in the “health” section of the store and whose ingredients I can mostly identify –are good for me.

Enter Melanie Warner’s new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.  Ms. Warner is not on a mission to convince us never to eat processed food again; she understands, as do I, that that is an extremely unrealistic goal. Her mission, in my opinion, is to shed light on the dark (and what should be) moldy underside of the processed food industry in America.   And, just as importantly, she explains how we got into this bizarre situation in the first place.

I was a bit surprised to learn that many of the foods I feed my family contain additives (there are more than five thousand of them) that have been either ignored by the FDA (Federal Drug Administration) or never adequately tested. I was also happy to find that most of the pivotal processed inventions – breakfast cereal and American cheese, to name two –were accidentally created, and not by sinister masterminds but by regular people trying to prolong the transport and shelf life of initially wholesome products.

So how should we even define processed food – and what kinds of foods should be avoided?  First of all, processed food is something you could not create in your own kitchen. Warner tells the story of how her mother unwittingly ate from a 9 month-old, un-moldy container of guacamole in her refrigerator, which after careful sleuthing was found to be made from, among other things, avocado facial mask!  Even seemingly healthy foods can be processed and preserved, bleached and conditioned.  And of course that’s the point, to preserve these foods. But what is lost in the process just cannot be made up in a chemistry lab.

It turns out that many of the convenience foods I enjoy (a moment of silence for Panda Puffs, please) are put through such damaging processes that they lose their inherent nutrients and are subsequently fortified with vitamins and minerals. These engineered vitamins are mainly produced in huge Chinese factories and injected back into breads, cereals, pastas, and more in large quantities to compensate for shelf-life losses.

Here’s our bottom line: our bodies are incredible — and incredibly mysterious. Food scientists and nutritionists are still unsure how vitamins, minerals, protein, amino acids, fiber, enzymes, and bacteria work together in our digestive tracts and bloodstreams. If we get 100% Vitamin D from a factory (made from sheep’s grease, but that’s another story), do our bodies process it the same way as when we soak up 15 minutes of sunlight, or eat mushrooms and salmon?  Maybe; maybe not.  The cumulative or combined effects of these additives and processes are simply not known, because they are as varied as the individuals who eat them.

There is no doubt that responsible processed food has a place at the table; I think we just need to be more informed and demanding consumers.  I’m on a mission to eat less processed “product,” as Warner calls it, and more whole, juicy, messy, browning –and real–foods.

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