Natural foods are important to people today. When I had first heard of natural foods my first reaction was that this must be some type of buzz word or catch phrase. I didn’t realize what this categorization of food meant or why someone like myself should care. I didn’t really give it very much consideration at all. After several recommendations by friends and after seeing references to natural stuff everywhere, I decided that it was time to look into these foods and see what all the hype was about. Was there something in it for me? Was there some compelling reason that I might want to learn about them? Could there be a reason for me to even start eating natural foods? I didn’t know but soon found out.
What are natural foods?
Natural foods are foods that have not been heavily processed. These foods do not have artificial ingredients. This means that the food items are as close to their natural state as possible. Basically, when people talk about being natural, it isn’t so much about what it is but more about what it is not. One of the biggest things that makes something natural is that it isn’t processed. So if you want to know what natural foods are, they are just foods that have not been processed. In essence, they are the opposite of processed foods. This is what makes them valuable and this is the reason you will see people talk so much about processed foods.
What are processed foods?
Foods are processed for a reason but is it a good reason? When people and companies started processing food it wasn’t done because of some evil plot to save money and make people unhealthy. It actually starts as a logical progression of what people have been doing for thousands of years ( it is little bit different today though ). There are three main reasons to produce processed foods.
The first reason to produce processed foods is to preserve them so that they don’t spoil. This allows more food to be produced and stored over a longer period of time. This results in stores being able to keep food on their shelves for a longer period of time and for consumers to be able to keep food on their shelves for longer as well. This saves everyone money and helps to make food available.
The second reason for producing processed foods is to make food at a lower cost and more efficiently. Companies prefer this because it saves them money. If they can mass produce something for much less money, they will. This doesn’t always result in a safe product. An example of where this goes wrong would be adding toxic chemicals to food so that it can be processed faster. Another example is injecting cows and other animals with hormones to make them grow faster. This wreaks havoc on the health of any human that eats the food ( it is kind of like taking steroids ).
The third reason for processed foods is to give people what they want. This reason is the most devious and is responsible for some of the worst practices but is ultimately caused not only by a corporate drive for profit but also by consumers desire to have certain types of food. These techniques include doing things like adding extra sugar to things to make them taste sweeter. Color dye is often times added to food to make it look pretty so that people will be more likely to buy it ( and it works great ). This seems obvious with things like candy but even things like salmon and beef have color dye added. People who don’t know any better end up choosing these over natural alternatives because they look better.
Are processed foods always bad?
Mostly, yes, they are. Is it worth it or should people move back to natural foods? Ask yourself this question: do I value being alive? If you enjoy being alive and if you value good health, just go natural. Even if you are trying to save money, you will end up costing yourself more money in the long term on doctors bills and other things trying to fix a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Sure, if you are living in extreme poverty and don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you should probably eat whatever you can get. Otherwise it probably isn’t worth it to eat processed foods. You are much better off eating natural.
Is this always the case?
No, sometimes it is helpful. For example, preserving food can help prevent it form decaying and stop the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. It can be a good thing but in practice it gets out of hand and goes too far to the point where it causes more harm than good.
Also, keep in mind that technically, a lot of simple things, like chopping food could be considered processing. This doesn’t count. It is 100% OK to chop your fruits and veggies. Cooking is OK too ( fewer vitamins but still not toxic ). You just want to avoid adding lots of sugar, salt, or toxic chemicals. Some people go crazy and try to avoid anything that could possibly be considered processing. Don’t do this.
Chemical processing VS Mechanical processing
When you are trying to determine if a type of food is processed or natural it is important to avoid common misunderstandings in order to get a clear picture. One important distinction that should be made is between chemical processing and mechanical processing. As always, this doesn’t hold true 100% of the time but for the most part this is how it works. Mechanical processing means that things are chopped up or ground up. This is generally not a huge concern and is not the type of food processing that we should be worried about. One example of this is ground beef. The exception, of course would be when grain is processed to remove nutrients and to be ground into refined flour or corn starch.
Chemical processing means that something needs to be extracted using chemicals or that it has chemicals added to it or something more along these lines. A good example of chemical processing might be how corn syrup is made. One historical method of producing this would be to use acid to strip out the syrup from corn starch while heating the mixture ( newer processes exist today ). This produces corn syrup and goes far beyond mechanical processing. This is what you want to avoid. The main take away from this is that it is important to be aware of how something is processed and why you may or may not want to eat it.
What is good about natural foods?
As I keep saying, the reason natural foods are good is exactly because processed foods are bad. Do you want to be fat? Do you want to be sick? If your answer to either of these questions is “no” then one of the best things you can do is get away from processed stuff and start eating natural. Eating clean can make a huge difference in your life. If you take your health seriously or just like staying alive, this is the way to go. Even if you aren’t that serious, no one wants to feel sick and everyone could use a little more energy.
Additives and Dangers of processed foods
Sugar, this is probably one of the first things people think of when it comes to eating healthy. In the natural world, sugar isn’t available in its raw form. It comes embedded in other thing like fruit. In this form it isn’t as harmful. First, the overall levels of sugar will be lower. Second, our bodies will do more work to extract it and will process and absorb it properly. When pure sugar is added to foods, it results in way too much sugar that is in much too pure a form. The most obvious effect of this increased calorie intake. This is one way people become fat. Beyond that, sugar will throw your metabolism out of sync. It can cause insulin resistance and diabetes. It can cause problems with the liver and has even been said to be linked to cancer. Most people don’t get sugar by just adding it themselves. It comes embedded in snacks and drinks so that people end up consuming it without even realizing how much they are taking in.
Sugar isn’t the only additive that ends up in our food. Several other things are commonly added as well. Preservatives are used to prevent food from rotting. While these are useful, they probably aren’t worth ingesting into our bodies. Another thing that is often times added to food is artificial flavor. The great thing about these is that manufacturers don’t even have to specify exactly which chemicals are used in flavorings. They just list “artificial flavor” in the ingredients list. This ingredient could be just about anything that they want. They are supposed to be safe for consumption but since the companies that make these products are the same companies that pay the regulators who approve them, there isn’t much to go on .
My favorite type of additive would have to be colorants. These are absolutely terrible. They have no real practical purpose except to make food look pretty so that they can be more competitive. Not only are the artificial colors themselves dangerous, they change how the food would naturally look. This is misleading and overall incredibly unsettling. My favorite example of this is the pink color dye used in salmon. The way this is added to salmon ( crazy as that sounds at first ) is that the salmon are fed a chemical called astaxanthin which actually occurs naturally in other animals and is actually healthy to eat ( natural salmon is still healthier for other reasons ). This is an exception and generally additives in food are not healthy. An example of a colorant that is not healthy would be red dye # 5. Red 5 can be found in many different things. It has been said to sometimes be used in salmon, although usually not.
Another, seemingly less talked about type of additive would be texturants. These are chemicals that give a food a certain texture that it wouldn’t naturally have. This is just another thing to look out for.
Grains and Carbs
Some people say that eating carbs is bad. Other people say that eating carbs is good and that we should actually base our diets around them. Who has the right idea? Well, as it turns out, the short answer is that both are wrong. The issue isn’t so much a matter of carbs or no carbs. It is important to make the distinction between simple carbs and complex carbs. What is this distinction? Yes, you guessed it, processing. Simple carbs are just carbs that have been processed more. This means that they will contain fewer nutrients and have more empty calories that will just make you fat without any great benefit. On the far end of the spectrum, the best example of a simple carb would be sugar. Just plain, pure sugar is the best example of a simple carb. On the far other end of the spectrum, the best example of a complex carb would be completely unprocessed brown rice. Not only has this not had any nutrients removed but it hasn’t even been ground up into flower or any other lower form.
There exists a huge range of different carb containing foods that cover the entire spectrum between these two extremes. Here is a list of examples that I think illustrate this spectrum from high to low:
- pure sugar
- candy bar
- bagel ( plain )
- bagel ( multi grain )
- white rice
- brown rice
The advantage that complex carbs have over simple carbs is that the body needs to do more work to process them. This is a good thing because this is how the human body is supposed to work. This is a natural process that is short circuited when people eat simple carbs. Simple carbs are absorbed quickly and become fat right away since the body can’t use that much energy all at once. Complex carbs take more time to process and allow the body absorb the calories at a natural pace. This results in more calories being used for energy over a longer period of time. This also results in fewer calories being stored as fat since they are slowly being burned for energy as needed.
The other great advantage of less processed grains is that they tend to have more fiber. Fiber does help us keep things moving and so we don’t get all stuck up. It does more than that though. Fiber helps to slow carb absorption so that we feel better and don’t need as much. It also helps grow friendly probiotic intestinal bacteria which help us process food even more. Natural, complex, high fiber grain also burns more calories while being digested giving us that much more of a benefit. It is best to stick with natural foods that have all of their fiber intact. Just try to avoid processed foods.
Why they are important?
People need options. People need to be able to avoid processed foods. People need to have choices in a market that is filled with junk food. Making the decision to have no processed food in your diet is much easier if that food is more available. As an example, if you are trying to plan a healthy breakfast and you have a huge number of natural options available, it will be that much easier. Having a wide array of healthy natural food at your local store is something we are starting to see more and more. We want to continue this trend. The best advice is to avoid processed foods.
New Trend or Old
Natural foods are not necessarily a new thing. They have been around for as long as people have roamed the earth in search of things to eat. To start out with, of course, only natural foods were available. When people needed to eat, they took it from nature. People picked what plants were growing right there in front of them and ate what animals they could catch.
Processed foods have also been around for a long time, just not necessarily in the sense that we know them. For almost as long as people have been gathering food, people have needed to preserve what they couldn’t eat right then. This was never as good as having fresh food but was still better than having nothing and helped people stay alive.
More recently, within the last century or so, food processing has come a long way and more advanced techniques have been developed. Some of these methods are toxic and less than desirable As a reaction to this people have been pushing for natural foods more and more. While neither type is necessarily new, the recent advances in preservation are new and the backlash / reactionary trend against it is new.
Politics play a huge role in the world of processed vs natural foods. Corporations want to continue saving money producing food. At the same time they want to stay competitive with each other. They have created an environment where they pretty much enforce the need to have processed foods with additives in order to stay competitive. Keeping consumers in the dark just makes this easier. This is why companies prefer to use a confusing haze of technical terms even for the most simple of ingredients. People push to have regulations put in place to force labeling of food items. This has helped and we have come a long way in recent years but corporations have lobbyists with a lot of money behind. They use this to control the politicians that control food regulations.
Different Definitions by Country
Not all natural foods are the same. Ideally, if you want something that is guaranteed to be natural, you probably want something that is labeled as “organic” particularly if you live in the United States. Many countries don’t have an official definition of “natural foods” which leads companies to just label anything they want as natural without any real regulation. The United kingdom has a definition of this based on the process by which a food product is made and based on the actual product. Canada and Israel both have rules for the term but they only cover how the food is processed.