By Andy Taylor
The mass consumption of processed foods might be a staple in modern society, but it wasn’t always that way.
For thousands of years, humans ate foods they grew and prepared themselves, without access to sealed cans or freezers.
The fact that processed meals are so common today begs the question: How does factory-altered food affect the body?
Alicia Burgin, owner of Pure Body Nutrition, says eating processed foods often means sacrificing health content in exchange for shelf life or taste.
“It’s taking what God has created and pulling out all of the vitamins and nutrients and putting it on the shelf,” Burgin says. “It’s been processed, so it’s not what nature intended. It’s not what you need for your body.”
At her store, Burgin advises customers on the best ways to maintain healthful eating habits.
She says many people make the mistake of cutting corners on their diet by eating low-calorie foods that provide little health value. Eating diet-friendly frozen dinners, for example, means consuming high levels of sodium.
“They have to put tons of salt to actually preserve that food,” she says. “Whereas, you can get fresh vegetables and things of that nature and be a whole lot healthier.”
Still, Burgin says some processed foods can be beneficial. The important factor to note is the ingredient list. In most cases, the shorter the list, the better.
“If it says, ‘peas and carrots,’ you’re good,” she says. “If it says, ‘peas, carrots, salt and all these other additives,’ you’re not doing great.”
Burgin says this is because altering natural foods can strip away nutrients that make bodies healthy and strong. She cites the fact many Americans rely on multivitamins to supplement their diets as evidence many foods lack what bodies need.
She recommends looking at different brands of steamed vegetables to find produce that lacks harmful additives.
“They haven’t done anything to it, they haven’t taken anything away,” she says. “It’s just been freeze-dried.”
Justin Sturgis, nutritional consultant at Complete Nutrition, says processed foods might not pose an immediate risk but can lead to trouble later in life.
The problem, he says, is not that all processed foods are inherently bad, as many altered food products pose no immediate physiological reaction. However, the additives used in many processed foods can build up over time.When he talks to people about improving their diet, Sturgis says he always advises a natural approach. He’s concerned not only with macronutrients, such as fats and proteins, but also the quality of the food.
“A lot of times processed foods are cheaper, they’re mass produced,” he says. “Whether it be livestock or produce … it comes down to (money).” Large food companies, he says, are more interested in selling as much of a food product as possible, rather than providing a nutritious meal.
Burgin says the fact that processed foods are cheaper makes eating healthfully even more challenging.
It’s made even more complicated by the fact many processed meals are enriched with vitamins and minerals. Products such as milk or bread might be fortified with Omega 3 fatty acids, which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, or fiber, which helps with digestion. In this case, eating processed foods actually can be beneficial, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
Burgin says the important thing to remember is to give the body what it needs, rather than what is cheapest or fastest. She emphasizes that just because a diet might seem cheap now doesn’t mean it will not cost more later, because a poor diet over time can lead to health problems.
“You have to spend a little bit more money to buy a bag of carrots and cut them up and steam them yourself,” she says. “I kind of look at it when I’m going to the grocery store that I’ve got to put that money in now, so that I don’t have to put it in later and be in pain and pay doctor bills.”
While maintaining a diet rich in processed foods might take years to catch up to someone, the effects of natural foods are much faster, she says. Eating natural, nutritious meals can lead to more energy and fewer aches and pains.
“It gives you the ability to do more and be more active,” she says.