Everyone wants to eat naturally. But it's very difficult to avoid processed foods.
Unless you are eating a strictly raw diet, you are consuming processed meals. Wikipedia redirects the search for "processed foods" to convenience foods -- "commercially prepared food designed for ease of consumption." The Collins English Dictionary describes processed goods as "foods that have been treated or prepared by a special method, esp in order to preserve them." Canning, freezing, refrigeration and dehydration are all methods used in food processing.
It's not a new concept. Processing originally served to preserve food in ancient times and gained popularity during World War II to meet military needs. The military needed to produce food that could travel thousands of miles and stay fresh. Instant coffee, M&M's, and Spam became staples of the soldiers' diets. (Unfortunately, some of us are eating the same way today.)
Shortly after the war, convenience made processed foods even more popular. As women entered the work force less time was left to prepare laborious meals. Balancing work, families and the home, quick, easy meals were readily accepted and welcomed (hello, Swanson TV dinners). As televisions entered homes advertising took advantage of this expanded market and further sold us on the need for fast and premade foods.
Now as much as 70 percent of our "food" is processed. Sure, it is convenient, but this comes at a price. Much of what goes into these boxes and cans is not real ingredients, but synthetic substances made in a lab or factory. Laced with chemicals and additives (there are about 5,000 that can be added to processed foods!), not regulated by the FDA, processed food has contributed to myriad health problems, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Preservatives, artificial sweeteners, trans-fats, and pesticides have all been linked to various diseases.
How do we avoid the 70 percent? Gradual steps and modifications can set you on the path to eating more "real" foods and choosing foods with less processing. Here are some tips:
-- Read Labels. Choose products with the fewest and most pronounceable ingredients. Tortillas are a great example. The basic ingredients to make tortillas are flour, oil, water, salt and baking powder. Most commercially prepared tortillas have at least a dozen ingredients, including hydrogenated oils and enriched products. Look closely and you can find brands that contain only the essential ingredients.
-- Make one dish at each meal from scratch. Prepare a salad each night with dinner or simply sauté some broccoli with a little olive oil and garlic. A rice pilaf or tomato sauce can be quick and easy to prepare. Often it is easier to start with a side dish and work your way up to creating a main course. Don't be fooled by the misconception that it's cheaper to buy pre-made than cook from scratch. A study from Rodale found that making your own chili with grass-fed beef was at least $.50 cheaper per serving.
-- Replace processed foods with something healthier. For example, some cereals can have up to 70 residual pesticides lurking inside. Choose oatmeal with simple, whole ingredients (rolled oats, cinnamon, sugar). Creating your own instant oatmeal packs is quite simple and convenient. Homemade granola bars can be made with less sugar/fat and stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
-- Cook in bulk. Weekends are often the only time I have to cook breakfast. If I make pancakes, muffins, or waffles I double the recipe and freeze the leftovers. During the week I can pull out something from the freezer and know exactly what's in it.
Eliminating all processed foods is not a realistic goal. But, placing an emphasis on whole, fresh products can reduce our dependence on these convenience foods. Taking a little time to read labels and choose products with fewer ingredients can help us incorporate healthier choices in our diet. In time you will discover that transitioning to unprocessed is not as difficult as it appears.
Dawn Wynne is a best-selling children's author, award-winning teacher, and certified health coach. Combing her love for the environment, passion for nutrition, and teaching talents she works with children and families to help them make healthy lifestyle choices. For information on her books visit her at www.dawnwynne.com.
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