Everyone knows that “junk food” is bad for us. Many of us know that “processed food” is bad for us. But what really is the difference? Why do many health-conscious consumers shun potato chips but enjoy granola bars in abundance? Why do many health-conscious consumers refuse to buy soda for their child but purchase fortified “juice” beverages regularly?
Processed food is food that has been heavily manufactured in order to be shelf-stable. Processed food rarely resembles anything from nature. Processed food fills the inner aisles of the grocery store; things like cereal, crackers, breads, bottled beverages, granola bars, and other snack foods. There is no question that these foods are not part of a healthy diet. When a food undergoes so much manufacturing, it becomes nutritionally devoid. An enormous amount of preservatives and other artificial ingredients are added to these foods to keep them “fresh.” In addition, a great deal of sugar and salt is often added to make these “foods” taste better. The healthiest foods are the ones closest to their natural state. Our bodies are not designed to consume these man-made concoctions that America has come to accept as food. When we eat shrink-wrapped, boxed, bagged creations, we will not reach optimal health and weight. Calories are irrelevant here; the food you eat is a lot more complex than calories. [For more on this, read my post Confessions of an Ex-Calorie Counter.]
There is rarely any dispute over junk food. The general consensus is that foods like twinkies, potato chips, and soda are not good for us. This is true, however, there are many foods just like these that the average family would consider a healthy addition to their pantry. Unfortunately, a great deal of marketing fools most consumers into believing items like granola bars or fortified cereals are a beacon of health, while in reality, they are much like twinkies in disguise. [See my posts The Truth About Granola Bars and The Truth About Vitamin Water for more specific info on this.]
While these healthy substitutes may be certified organic and may not contain harmful ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or trans fat, they are certainly not the foundation of a healthy diet. Nearly all these foods are very high in sugar and are heavily processed. “Whole wheat” bread is one of the worst offenders; consumers think that a “whole grain” label is a sign of a truly nutritious choice. These breads are full of preservatives and often still contain refined white flour. [For more on this, read my post All About Bread.] While I recommend them over their more unnatural counterparts, I really don’t recommend them at all. A long ingredient list is always worth avoiding.
But perhaps the worst offender is functional or fortified foods. These are standard, processed foods that have certain vitamins or nutrients added to increase their marketability. There is always a new nutrient in the spotlight with incredible health claims and promises. Things like vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants, omega 3s, and probiotics are just some of the current health buzzwords. Food companies know that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in health, so they fortify their processed, cheap, junk food with these substances. These are healthy substances when found occurring naturally in whole foods. However, supplementing a nutrient-devoid, sugar-laden, chemically-ridden cracker with a certain nutrient won’t make it healthy.
Be a smart consumer. When considering your food purchases, don’t be enticed by health claims and packaging. Stick to foods that resemble something that may be found in nature and the nutrition will take care of itself.
Eat your vegetables,