The world of food has become a bit of a nightmare to navigate. Words like organic, whole food and natural crop up more and more. But do these titles mean that the product is better for you every time? And then there is the converse negatively associated terms like GMO, processed food, ultra-processed, flavoured, refined etc. Do these words always mean bad for you? Everyone seems to have an opinion. We aim to guide you through the murky waters of the food industry.
Regardless of the diet philosophies you follow, there is one simple rule that all nutrition professionals agree on: opt for simple, less processed foods.
What The Processed Food Industry Doesn't Want You To Know
Processed foods are defined as a food item that has gone through a series of mechanical or chemical operations to change or preserve it. They typically contain more than one ingredient, of which a good portion would not be recognised as food by a prior generation. Once you understand this definition it is easy to see that it applies to most of the food products on shelf in our grocery stores.
As recently as the 1990's, the average number of items in a grocery store was under 10 000. Today the average grocery store stocks over 50 000 items. We have never had more diversity of food options or such abundant access in the history of society. So what is the problem?
1. The Variety of Foods Available In Stores Has Increased But The Nutrient Value Has Decreased.
Despite the huge increase in the number of items available, our nutrient variety has decreased, and our consumption of food additives has increased. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation Of The UN, out of more than 5 000 edible plant crops available 90% of our diet is made up of only 15 foods. Of that 15, only 3 make up more than 60% of our energy intake: rice, maize and wheat.
The increase in the variety of foods available on shelf is achieved by more processing, more flavours, more preservatives, not more nutrient variety.
2. More Processed Food Means More Additives
The use of food additives has increased drastically over the last few decades. They are used for one of 3 different reasons: to preserve the quality and safety of food, to reduce the cost of food, or to create a different look, taste, texture or appeal of the food.
The more steps a product goes through, the longer it takes to get from the farm to fork. The longer food takes to flow through our food systems, the more preservatives and additives it needs to make the journey.
Each time food is handled or moved it is exposed to bacteria, damage and fluctuations in temperature or humidity. These elements require additional additives to reduce the consequences and risks. More process steps mean more quality risks and more additives to control those risks.
With so many products on shelves, it is becoming more and more difficult to compete with new products at the right cost. This often means creating new appealing products requires more additive enhancers or less 'expensive' natural elements.
Food that flows through an incresingly complex and lengthy food system will require increasing amounts of additives.
3. More Processed Food Means More Waste is Produced And More Resources Are Wasted.
Research by the UN Food Association suggests 30% to 40% of all food produced is wasted, globally. Locally, the Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research suggests South African food waste is between 30% - 50%, with most of this waste happening in the processing and production stages. The longer the food has to travel and the more steps it goes through, the more likely it is to get damaged and wasted.
Each time food moves through a step in the food system resources are added to preserve or enhance it. The more complicated our food systems, the more we consume things like packaging, energy, transport and food additives in the process.
4. Complicated Food Systems Mean Bigger Food Giants And Less Room For Small Businesses.
Creating complicated processed food requires specialised technology, technical expertise, and big investments. It is only viable on a large scale by companies that have the means to compete. This leaves little opportunity for small businesses or new companies to enter the market.
The few big companies that participate in the market need to keep their products consistent. To keep products consistent these food giants need to buy from big commercial farmers. Big commercial farmers need to produce enough volume of exactly the same crop to supply what the food giants need. This discourages biodiversity of crops and leaves very little, often no customer options for smallholder farmers. Bigger farmers are also at the mercy of only a handful of large food giants, forced to accept what the giants are willing to pay and forced to do what is necessary to grow what the giants want.
5. Bigger Food Giants And Longer Food Systems Means Less Transparency
The food we eat no longer looks remotely like the original individual ingredients in their natural form. Our ability to tell what we are eating, where it came from and how it was produced has disappeared. As it is, labeling regulation only requires companies to disclose the last point of processing. In many cases, the last point of processing is only where the product is packed. For some products, the origin makes a BIG difference (watch out for future articles on this).
Big companies are under pressure to meet profit objectives. Excessive use of harmful pesticides and herbicides is on the rise. More creative and difficult to detect methods of food fraud are appearing. The risks are increasing. It is becoming increasingly important to make informed decisions about the food we buy but more and more difficult to access the information needed.
Why Naturally Simple Foods Are ALWAYS Naturally Better
We need to focus less on the words that describe the foods and more on the number of steps that food went through. As Amelia Barr says, "It is the simple that creates the marvelous". Processed foods by their nature have to pass through lengthy food systems but whole foods do not. When we choose whole foods we are able to shorten the food system and go more direct to the farmers. When we shorten the food system we eliminate most of the problems in our foods, leaving us with beautiful single ingredient, whole foods.
Whether your objective is to improve your health or reduce your impact on the world, choosing to make the switch to whole foods holds the key to transforming our lives.
If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out our article on why more people are returning to natural. Food isn't the only area we should be mindful of in terms of the ingredients and processing. Look out for our article on why natural skincare is something we should all consider.