When I started thinking about this series of posts, Healthy Eating 101, I didn’t intend to talk much about processed foods. I wanted to keep the series positive and to emphasize simple changes we can make to improve what we eat.
But then the New York Times Magazine published an amazing and provocative article about the processed food industry, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” And I realized that we need to understand the bad news about processed food before we can make healthy changes in our diets.
I thought I knew a lot about the big food companies and the products they produce to “feed” Americans, but this article left me wide-eyed and open-mouthed. So for Part 2 of Healthy Eating 101. let’s talk briefly about processed foods, which will set us up to focus in Part 3 about real and whole foods. (Here’s Part 1 – Get Organized and Make a Plan, if you missed it.)
For our purposes, let’s think of “processed foods” as foods that have been significantly altered from their natural form, usually through a manufacturing process. Very often, the manufacturing process removes important nutrients and adds salt, sugar, fat and/or preservatives. Although many foods need to be “processed” in order for us to consume them (homemade whole wheat bread, for example), the foods we need to worry about are generally packaged, boxed, canned, frozen or served in restaurants or through drive-thru windows.
What did the New York Times investigation find?
The article provides a glimpse into a four-year investigation of big food manufacturers by Times reported Michael Moss. (His book – Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us – details the complete investigation.) One of his key findings is this – not only have the “big food” companies hooked us on foods that are bad for us, they did it on purpose. They used science, research and marketing to create a demand for foods they knew were bad for us. Here are just a few astonishing quotes from the article:
- “What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort – taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery store aisles – to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.”
- “…the food industry already knew some things about making people happy – and it started with sugar. Many of the Prego sauces…have one feature in common: the largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies.”
- “…the next question was how to expand the franchise (Lunchables), which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: when in doubt, add sugar.”
- “In an effort to control as much market share as possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans – where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average…”
That’s just a small sample, but you get the idea – food manufacturers are not looking out for our health. Okay, fine. At least we know where we stand. So the burden is on us to make sure that we and our families eat well. It’s a big job, but I think we’re up to the task.
So how do we get started? The first step is to look carefully at what we’re feeding our families, in terms of processed foods and fast foods. Start reading labels. How long is the ingredient list? Generally, the longer the list, the more processed the food. If you can’t pronounce most of the ingredients, it probably isn’t a food you want to eat. How much sodium does it contain? (A majority of people should eat less than 1500 mg per day, and everyone should eat less than 2300 mg.) How much sugar? (The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 g of added sugar per day for women, and no more than 37.5 for men.)
If your family is eating a lot (or even a moderate amount) of processed food, the next step is to figure out why. Is your schedule so hectic that you don’t have time for anything else? Are you too tired to cook? Don’t know how to cook? Don’t have any healthy recipes? Or maybe you’ve just gotten into an unhealthy pattern. Sit down and really figure out what’s going on with your family’s eating.
Then, figure out what you can do to change the pattern.
Start small – maybe eliminating one fast food meal per week or cooking one meal from fresh ingredients.
Clean out your pantry or cupboards and get rid of things you really don’t want your family to eat.
Read and gather information about replacing processed foods with real foods. Good books include Real Food by Nina Planck and Food Rule by Michael Pollan. Begin by taking small steps to wean your family off processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and chemicals.
In Part 3 we’ll talk about reasons to eat more whole and real foods, and ways to incorporate them into your life and in Part 4 I’ll share some simple strategies for getting started. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the American diet, food manufacturers, processed foods, or the difficulty of eating well in the midst of a busy schedule.
Be sure to download a copy of my free ebook, 24 Quick and Healthy Family Meals.