On the naughty list

I am on a bit of a processed food binge. Not eating it, but writing about it. This is the third in a series of recent, sort-of connected posts about the processed food industry and, although I feel as though I have only just started to scratch the surface, I do promise I will move on to other topics soon. Bear with me though, I do think this stuff is important.

Pancake layer 1 = me and my health

Pancake layer 1 = me and my health

At the heart of this current set of posts on Running Buffet is a hope that I can uncover enough information to work out what the Right Thing is regarding the food and drink that I eat and, er, drink. This is not an unusual aim, but it is proving to be tricky. At the moment, as far as processed food goes:

  • I am confident that there are some seriously worrying practices at work in some areas of the processed food industry
  • At the same time, I believe that there is still a place for some processed foods in my diet – after all I just don’t have the energy or conviction to conjure up everything from first principles, plus I expect that I would suck at home brewing
  • I know some of the things to avoid, but I am by no means clear as to exactly what should go on the “good” or the “bad” lists

It is the last bullet point that I now turn to. Like a culinary Father Christmas, I need to know which ingredients have misbehaved and will therefore not be receiving a visit from me down their chimney this year. And on that terrible Santa simile, let’s begin.

The good news is that I am not alone. There are several people out there trying to help. It should come as no surprise that they often have their own agenda. For example, let’s look at a quick definition of what “processed food” is.

The definition of what constitutes a processed food can vary slightly, but it usually refers to foods that are packaged in boxes, cans or bags. These foods need to be processed extensively to be edible and are not found as is in nature. In addition to going through many complex processing steps, processed foods often contain additives, artificial flavorings and other chemical ingredients.

San Francisco Gate, within the healthy eating area of the website

Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. It can be as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.

Food Insight, the website of the International Food Information Council

Although the initial definitions are not particularly different, there is a subtle (or not) shift in the second half of the definition to highlight either the positive or the negative effects of processed foods. Caution needs to be our watchword as we tread carefully down this path.

The avowedly anti-processed option

One website that is unashamedly anti-processed food is 100 Days of Real Food and, seeing as my aim here is to work out the bad apples of the processed food world, they may be able to help.

This list clearly contains some (minimally) processed foods (milk, yoghurt, cheese, coffee, tea etc) but the main thing I am taking from this is that foods should be as close to their natural form as possible. If I’m honest, the above list is not quite what I am looking for. It is fine if you are eschewing processed food (almost) entirely, but I am looking for something that gives me a bit of latitude in choosing some processed food as well. The website is well worth a look, however, and has a lot of information to support their “no processed food” mantra.

It’s all about the numbers

As we saw last time, you can fill a book trying to explain all of the component parts that go into processed food. Realistically, I am not going to bother trying to keep up with all of the innovations in the world of food manufacturing and to work out whether they are meant to be good for us or not. Even Father Christmas only has to bring a reckoning once a year; I would need to do it three times a day, every day.

There are some obvious candidates for the naughty list, and I will return to them in later posts, but my immediate resolution involves just one of the recommendations from 100 Days of Real Food. Their “made with only a handful of wholesome ingredients” maxim, whilst not particularly specific, is one that crops up in several other places as well (a quick Google search for “processed foods to avoid” will throw up several examples). They go on to spell it out in a little more detail as nothing “that has more than 5 ingredients on the label”.

So my line in the sand is this:

  • If it has a long list of ingredients, then I’m going to be suspicious
  • If I don’t know what half of the ingredients on that long list are, then I’m going to avoid it

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut

This is clearly a very broad-brush approach. It will undoubtedly lead to some bad ‘uns slipping through the net. It will likely lead to me avoiding things that are absolutely fine. And it is, unavoidably, going to be something that I fall short on from time-to-time; no one has the energy to check everything, all of the time.

But it is somewhere to start.