Food vilification is nothing new in diet culture and processed foods have been hit hard.
They are seen as ‘toxic’, ‘unclean’ and even dangerous.
And now ultra-processed foods are here.
Which make processed foods appear almost angelic when you delve into social media.
So we have another level of food snobbery as a result. ‘Concern’ not only about what you eat, but also how much you spend on your food, how you eat it and where you eat that food.
It’s almost impossible to eat the way you want without feeling someone’s wrath encroach on your personal space.
What amazes me is that people comment so vehemently, with such conviction from a moral high ground, despite knowing very few actual facts.
Food is personal. It’s also very emotional. Not in an ‘I eat for comfort kind of way’ but due to the fact that all our food choices are based on emotion. We therefore quickly develop opinions, often based on our own beliefs and feelings rather than knowledge or fact. So open discussion can quickly become heated. Attacking. It can become too personal.
So let's look at processed foods. Are they really that bad?
Despite the division of opinion on this topic it's not clear cut, and it’s certainly not always clear when you’re doing your shopping.
Here’s what we mean by processed foods, based on the NOVA classification:
Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods
These are your fruit and veg, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish and milk.
Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients. They include frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen fish, pasteurised milk, 100% fruit juice, no-added-sugar yoghurt, spices and dried herbs. Around 30% of the energy from our diet is made up of foods form this group.
Group two: Processed culinary ingredients
This group include oils, fats like butter, vinegars, sugars and salt. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone and are often added to the foods in group one. Around 4% of the energy we eat in the UK comes from this category.
Group three: Processed
Processed foods are products that are usually made using a mix of group one and two ingredients. They include smoked and cured meats, cheese, fresh bread, bacon, salted nuts, tinned fruit in syrup, beer and wine.
The main purpose of the processing is to prolong the food’s life or enhance its taste and around 10% of the energy eaten in the UK is from this group.
Group four: Ultra-processed
Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that you wouldn’t add when cooking homemade food. You may not recognise the names of these ingredients as many will be chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives that are given a code (like E numbers).
So before we get alarmed by the idea of these colours, sweeteners and preservatives, know that they are not all ‘bad’. Even when it comes to E numbers!
E stands for Europe, and the E number code relates to a set of EU rules about which foods can contain them and how much you should be able to consume in a day. [I am uncertain as to how our food will be labelled post Brexit)
Many E numbers are very important for good food and nutrition: for instance E300 is vitamin C, E101 is vitamin B2, E948 is oxygen and E160c is paprika.
As is the case with the processed food group, these additions prolong shelf life and ensure food quality is sufficient and consistent. They also ensure foods contain sufficient nutrients - all our flour is fortified and non dairy milks must have added Calcium vitamin D and B. Around 56% of the energy we eat in the UK is in the form of ultra processed food.
So what foods are we talking about here that have these added ingredients?
Breakfast cereals like Shreddies and Alpen, sausages and burgers (yes veggie and vegan too), baked beans, fresh soups (in the chilled counter), sliced wholemeal bread, cakes, biscuits, sweets, milk based drinks, frozen, seasoned chips and milk based drinks (non-dairy alternatives as well as dairy based yoghurts too).
We don’t want to cut our nose off despite our face do we?
The reality is we are probably not going to make our breakfast cereals from scratch, make our own bread and meat (or meat alternative) products and I’m certainly not going to live my life without a slice of Mr Kipping Battenburg cake.
Am I going to die early from having a chocolate cookie I bought from the shop?
Will an almond and coconut milk smoothie increase my risk of heart disease?
Look at the bigger picture. Context is everything.
I look at the news reports that highly processed foods lead to earlier deaths and it makes me think....is it REALLY just the food or are there more complex social determinants of health going on here [nods head] such as poor access to health care, lower incomes and discrimination...
The processed food industry has brought us more choice and accessibility. There has been many a time when beans on toast has saved me. I live for my morning Swiss muesli. Biscuits got me through my pregnancy. Jelly Babies through sickness. Snack bars have prevented me from murdering someone with hanger whilst allowing me to maintain my focus, teaching hundreds of students about balanced nutrition.
So before we lay a guilt trip on someone (or ourselves for that matter), remember that your food choices are exactly that. YOUR CHOICE. And based on MULTIPLE factors that you don't need to justify to anyone else. Other peoples opinions of what you eat is none of their business. Just as your opinion of what other people eat is none of your business either.
The challenge IS however, if you are looking to reduce your intake of sugars, fat and salt, processed foods typically contain the most, are most readily available, cost the least and are marketed aggressively.
But don’t put all responsibility on your own shoulders that you need to 'eat better', because it really isn’t all yours to bear and I bet your diet is not as bad as you think.