How to Judge Food Quality and Identify Processed Foods

October 19th, 2009

Identifying Unhealthy Processed FoodDespite the fact that processed food is becoming widely recognized as unhealthy, many people still have a flawed understanding of food quality and don’t know how to differentiate the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, many people allow their perception of healthy food to be influenced by the tremendous presence of the food industry. Like any other type of industry, food manufacturers are most concerned with making money and taking advantage of rising trends. As such, even foods that are marketed as healthy are often not.

The 4 Levels of Food Quality

Any judgment regarding food quality should be based mostly on nature. Nutrition is a very complex subject that we still have a lot to learn about. As such, it’s a bold assumption for us to believe that we can outsmart nature and invent our own diets.

According to the Food, Inc. documentary, our food has changed more in the past 50 years than it has in the past 10,000. Based on this, it’s very questionable to trust the few decades of profit driven experience that food manufacturers have over the millions of years of unbiased experience that nature offers us.

The following are what I consider to be 4 simple ways to classify the quality of food. Hopefully they will help you avoid the misleading influence of the food industry and make healthier and more conscientious food choices.

Completely Natural

From a purist perspective, the only foods that are truly natural are those which you can take from nature and eat as is without any modification other than rinsing off some dirt. With the exception of poisonous plants, these are typically the safest and healthiest choices because they tend to be packed with plenty of nutrition and are virtually free of human intervention. Examples include organically grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs, eggs from pasture raised hens, and raw milk from pasture raised cattle.

Natural and Minimally Processed

A truly healthy diet should consist almost entirely of natural whole foods. However, many of these foods can’t be eaten exactly as they’re found in nature. For example, you can’t simply kill an animal and start chomping away. Although the processing is minimal and typically doesn’t destroy or alter any nutrients, the animal still needs to be skinned, gutted, and cut into the portions that we buy at the grocery store.

Fruit juices are another example that require at least a minimal amount of processing, even if you squeeze them yourself at home. However, unlike animal products that typically wouldn’t be possible to eat in their original form, fruit is more nutritious when eaten whole. Fruit juice, even if freshly squeezed, contains less nutrition than whole fruit and doesn’t have the fruit’s fiber to slow down sugar absorption and prevent blood sugar fluctuation.

Other nutritious foods such as raw nuts, seeds, and whole grains not only need to be removed from their natural casing, but also need to be soaked to break down the enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid that interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption. Dairy products derived from milk, fermented fruits and vegetables which actually have unique health benefits, and oils that are pressed from nuts, seeds, or fruit are additional examples of healthy foods that require a small amount of processing. Cooking is a form of processing as well, and even though it’s necessary for some foods, it can still destroy or denature nutrients if done for too long or with too high of a temperature.

The distinguishing characteristic of healthy but minimally processed foods is that they originate from natural whole foods, are processed in the least invasive way possible, are not heated or treated unnecessarily, and are not modified with any type of additives.

Natural but Poor Quality

Modern farming has become very industrialized and has abandoned natural practices in favor of increased efficiency and profit. As a result, produce is grown on depleted soil with heavy use of pesticides, and in many cases, the seeds used are genetically modified which is of significant concern for your health as well as our ecosystem. Livestock are often raised in inhumane conditions, fed antibiotics to compensate for the poor health that results, are given hormones to accelerate growth, and are fed inappropriate diets. Because of these unnatural practices, many of the whole foods that you see in your local grocery store are less nutritious than you might think and often contain chemical residues.

Many whole foods are subjected to damaging treatments such as pasteurization and irradiation to eliminate germs and undesirable microorganisms. Although this may initially sound favorable, it destroys and denatures a significant amount of essential nutrients. Furthermore, the only reason why such treatments are needed is to compensate for the unnatural and unsanitary farming practices that make food more susceptible to pathogens. Foods that are commonly pasteurized include dairy products and fruit juices, and just about any type of food can be irradiated.

To avoid whole foods that have been farmed improperly or exposed to chemical toxins or damaging processing, choose organic produce, pasture raised meat, and fish with minimal contamination.

The best sources for high quality foods are local farmers and farmers markets which you can find through EatWild.com and LocalHarvest.org. You can also order excellent food online from places like U.S. Wellness Meats, Vital Choice Seafood and Organics, and Blackwing Quality Meats.

Unnatural and Extensively Processed

Foods that are unnatural and extensively processed are what earned processed food it’s well deserved reputation of being unhealthy. This type of food typically contains a daunting number of ingredients, many of which are synthetic chemicals or are so highly refined that they barely resemble the whole food that they originated from. Some whole food derivatives, such high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil, undergo extensive chemical alterations in addition to being highly refined. Worst of all, many of the foods that fall into this category provide less nutrition than the amount utilized by the body to digest them.

Unnatural and highly processed foods will often have sugar listed as one of the first few ingredients, or will have a number of less obvious forms of sugar listed throughout the ingredients to make the sugar content more difficult to recognize. Flour and other forms of refined grains are also common and they typically aren’t any better than sugar. For the many people who are sensitive to gluten and don’t know it, many of these refined grains are actually much worse than sugar.

Many unnatural and highly processed foods also contain a number of artificial additives that are potentially dangerous such as sweeteners, flavors, coloring, and preservatives. These foods also tend to be made with cheap and unhealthy ingredients such as soy which can interfere with digestion, nutrient absorption, and hormone balance. Unnatural and highly processed foods almost always come in some type of packaging that makes all kinds of misleading statements about its benefits. Take a look at these examples of ridiculous food labels to see for yourself.

The bottom line with these foods is that they’re unhealthy, are invented instead of grown, and are primarily intended to generate revenue. Food manufacturers use the cheapest ingredients available to produce these foods and capitalize on marketing fads such as all natural, low fat, fat free, sugar free, whole grain, and high fiber to add appeal. Some of the less obvious foods that fall into this unhealthy category include bread, pasta, bagels, cereal, granola bars, protein bars, flavored yogurt, crackers, and frozen dinners.

Simple Tips for Selecting Healthier Food

The following are a few simple and effective ways to identify and avoid unnatural and highly processed food.

  • If a food wasn’t available 10,000 years ago, or before the start of modern agriculture, it’s not what nature intended for us to eat, it probably isn’t healthy, and you probably shouldn’t eat it.
  • If a food is advertised on television, radio, or in print, or has bold claims on its packaging, it’s most likely an unhealthy choice that should be avoided. After all, it’s very unlikely to see a head of broccoli sold in a box with a label boasting that its very nutritious, high in fiber, and free of trans fat.
  • Shop along the outer perimeter of the grocery store. This is where whole foods such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables are usually located. However, it’s important to realize that organic produce and pasture raised meat is not always available in a typical grocery store.
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