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Is that right? Processed food equals bad food

Processed food is bad for you, right?

In the midst of the ongoing push to get people to eat more "whole" foods, the term "processed food" has become a catch phrase for all that's evil in the supermarket and convenience store. We use it to denote foods that include dozens of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, few of them recognizable as real foods.

But perhaps we should come up with a more precise term. Because, as the folks who make Dannon yogurt reminded me in a long and interesting e-mail the other day, most of the food we eat -- even fresh produce and organic foods -- has been "processed" in some way. And healthful foods such as yogurt would not exist without the process used to create them.

Here's how the Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 defines "processed food":

Any food other than a raw agricultural commodity, including any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. Processing also may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats. Processing of foods, including the addition of ingredients, may reduce, increase, or leave unaffected the nutritional characteristics of raw agricultural commodities.

The Dannon folks' point is well taken. But how should we distinguish between good-for-you processed foods and those whose processing produces a nutrient-lacking glob of fat, sugar and salt -- the kind of "food" we likely have in mind when we use the word "processed."

Any ideas? Better than "nutrient-lacking glob," that is?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 20, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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And hemlock, belladonna, and a lot of mushrooms you don't want to eat are "natural".

The main reason the food industry added ingredients to "natural" foods is to improve them, to give them something that nature didn't. Unfortunately, it often comes with a cost but why throw the baby out with the bathwater when foolishing embracing anything "natural" as automatically healthy?

Posted by: GWGOLDB | August 20, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

"Denatured" comes to mind rather than processed -- indicating the that processing involved has negatively affected the food value, the "nature," that is, of the product.

Posted by: bergfam1 | August 20, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

The "Report" is splitting hairs. There is a fundamental difference between washing apples and injecting salmon with dye. I think most people can distinguish between normal "processes" to produce food like yogurt which have been done for thousands of years and modern chemical assaults on food whose sole purpose is to increase profit, regardless of its effect on the consumer, Dannon's attempts at obfuscation notwithstanding.

Posted by: darkglobe5 | August 20, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

When we speak to a balanced diet, it addresses one alternative to defining good food. Educating the public on the nourishment value of food grown in fertile soil, as opposed to highly mechanized processes that drain the soil and leave harmful chemical behind, may further raise the demand for good food. Of course it is important to define 'bad food' also. Food that causes disease, or consumes the calorie allowances so a body can't be healthy.

High salt, high sugar (like much of Dannon yogurt), high fat, low fiber, and low levels of nourishment should all signal 'WHY WOULD YOU EAT THAT OR FEED IT TO YOUR CHILDREN?" Its not that hard.

Most of all people need time to prepare meals and enjoy each other's company. If there is no time for this family communion, why would anyone care?

Bad food tastes bad, if you are accustom to eating good food. Unfortunately good food is expensive and many people skimp and develop a taste for bad food.

Posted by: sharonp1z | August 20, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

How about "nutritious" processed foods and whole foods? I looked at my pantry and its just full of nutritious processed foods. Nuts, canned beans, canned tomatoes and tomato puree and paste, pasta, stoned ground whole wheat flour, corn meal, etc. All processed for consumption. All ready to be made into healthy meals.

Although Dannon makes a valid point, I always knew what you meant by "processed" being unhealthy. I don't think anyone is being misled if you keep using that term.

Posted by: AnnsThought | August 20, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

This seems like a very simple question. Take Dannon (and other brands) yogurt and compare the difference in nutrients between 100 grams of their fruit yogurt and homemade yogurt with the same fruit. Homemade uses processed milk, a starter, fruit and (depending on the fruit) processed sugar. Most fruit has been processed to stay fresher during the trip from the grower to the market. The questions to ask are, is the Dannon yogurt more energy dense (more calories per 100 grams) than homemade? Is Dannon less nutrient dense (less nutrients per 100 grams)? I suspect that the Dannon folks have tested this and I am going to guess that their yogurt is more energy dense and nutrient poor - if their yogurt was more nutrient dense, their ads would be fill with this information.

The problem with processed food is the substitution of nutrient dense ingredients with nutrient poor ingredients such as the inclusion of flavoring in place of the real food. The only way to see this is to measure the difference between highly processed food and homemade. I have done this and have replaced many processed food items for homemade or semi-homemade. I stopped buying Dannon years ago because it is way too sweet and does not taste like real yogurt. Making the switch increases the time to prepare meals but I think that the time is worth it.

Posted by: nidomhnail | August 20, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid 'processed food' is not a concept that lends itself to rigorous definition. It is what has been called a 'cluster concept": There are properties that are relevant; but no one group of them may be necessary or sufficient. A good sign of a processed food is that its ingredients included chemicals with Latinate names.

Posted by: ffoulks | August 20, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

what a load of BS from dannon. food has been processed for hundreds of years. of course we know that. its only been in the last century that companies have dumped fake chemical stuff in their products like dannon which uses heaps and heaps of high-fructose corn syrup.

mmm mmm all-natural high fructose corn syrup!!! good for body and mind!! just like grandma used to make it!!

Posted by: crsiggy | August 20, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Empty calorie foods. Any food that, when you look at the "nutrition" label, contains all zeros in every category except fats, sugars and carbs. (?)

Posted by: eleanormcconnell | August 20, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

yeah that is true, major brands do give out free samples of their popular health products best place to check is send it to your friends

Posted by: gaffney21 | August 21, 2010 5:55 AM | Report abuse

Maybe we should drop completely meaningless terms like "processed food" altogether.

It's a term invented in the 1970s by hippies to distinguish their morally superior "natural foods" from that slop all the ignorant proles out there were eating.

"Regular food" and "Ordinary food" didn't have the right ring so they came up with "Processed food", which suggests that "The Man" is doing something nefarious to our food in his evil factories.

Posted by: corco02az | August 21, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

I find it useful to distinguish between "food" and "food product," or between, say, Wisconsin cheddar and Cheez wiz.

Posted by: kstack | August 21, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Mac and cheese once or twice a month is ok, Mac and cheese every week or more is a bad idea. Same for hotdogs. High Fructose Corn Syrup is bad regardless of what it is in - especially soft drinks or Dannon yogurt when used daily or several times a week.

Processed foods use too much salt and sugar. White flour - white bread - white pasta has had the fiber and vitamins taken out and unhealthy chemicals added.

Foods with no fiber cause constipation. Foods with no vitamins cause disease and the inability to handle stress and other emotional problems plus skin problems and bad hair days.

Make more foods from scratch like soups with beans and veggies and some soup bones. Make smoothies with fruit and honey. Eat more peanut butter - it is loaded with fiber.

Posted by: alance | August 21, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Let's all go out and club a deer or a pig in the woods and eat it raw! Now THAT'S natural food!

No more processed foods, no additives, just natural food!!

Posted by: joeblotnik49 | August 21, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Can recall being raised with most of our fruits and vegetables, coming from our own garden, followed by canning for winter months. As I aged, I also associated the diet I was raised on, with the culture, ( nationality ), we were from. Point is, along with the soil and the climate, a pattern emerged relating to longevity. Never had a so called processed food, until I was almost forty. So why are people living longer, when they eat processed food stuffs. Go figure!

Posted by: dangreen3 | August 21, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Did Dannon mention to you that the mile it uses has rBHG growth hormones in it. This chemical has a link to prostate, colon, and breast cancer. In europe all milk sold must be rBHG free. Again another big corp pretending it is not killing us.

Posted by: jjpjj | August 21, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

One big problem with the anti-processed foods movement is precisely this, most people honestly don't know what they are talking about. Take for example the anti-high-fructose corn syrup craze. Most people I've talked to who think it is evil think that they can replace it with table sugar and all is good. They don't realize that HFCS in baked goods actually contains less fructose than "natural" sugar from cane or beets. "Natural" sugar is also highly processed, but there is an anti-HFCS movement that cannot be bothered with these facts. A cookie is not suddenly healthy food when you use common table sugar instead of HFCS, and it's also not suddenly natural either. It's just as bad for you and actually contains more fructose as a result. Eating a Twinkie won't make you fat, eating a Twinkie every day will, but so will eating a cookie made with cane sugar every day.

crsiggy is an example of this know-nothing hysteria. Dannon's all natural yogurt contains no high fructose corn syrup (or even any sugar in the non-flavored varieties) but the fight against the evil HFCS is more important than facts.

Posted by: CharlesLD | August 21, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Dannon is just trying to confuse you and get you off their back. They are fully aware of what the real issues are but can buy some time and leniency with issues of semantics.

Posted by: sarahabc | August 21, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Great comments! Well informed group. We eat lots of Dannon, only we buy the whole milk plain and add our own homemade low sugar organic strawberry jam for flavoring. For us processed means if you cannot pronounce it it is bad and if it has more than 5 ingredients skip it for something more healthier and simpler. We now buy many canned items from numerous local framer's markets since the supermarket including Whole Foods and Trader Joe have food that add ingredients for presentation or self life.

Posted by: raresucculents | August 21, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Besides milk, fruit and live and active cultures, some DANNON yogurt varieties may contain other ingredients that enhance the flavor, texture and appearance of the finished product:
Cornstarch: A natural starch extracted from corn, cornstarch helps give body and texture to yogurt. The Food and Drug Administration has deemed modified cornstarch as a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) ingredient, meaning that it can be safely added to foods under current good manufacturing practices.
Gluten: This protein is found in wheat, oats, rye and barley. DANNON yogurt products are not formulated to contain gluten, but they can't be considered gluten free. The natural system for stabilizing flavor might contain ingredients derived from gluten sources. Since there is a current lack of consensus on individual sensitivity levels to gluten, and there are no accurate tests to detect the presence and amount of gluten, DANNON yogurt cannot be classified as "gluten free."
Aspartame: A low-calorie sweetener, aspartame is made of two naturally occurring amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1981, aspartame has been determined safe for the general population, as well as for people with diabetes.
Fructose: A simple sugar derived from fruit, fructose is added to several DANNON products for a natural-tasting sweetness.

Posted by: alance | August 21, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

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