Staying Whole in a Processed World: Processed Food

What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction

When I think of processed food, snack-type things like crackers, chips, and cookies immediately come to mind. Then I think of “helper” meals in a box, frozen dinners, cream of “whatevers”, baking mixes, 3,346 different snacks targeted at my kids…. and basically the entire middle section of the grocery store.

Oooohhhh, but it tastes good, doesn’t it? I’m not afraid to admit that I’d (still) probably eat an entire bag of Doritos in one sitting if I sat with it on the couch long enough. It’s convenient, too. Hungry? All you need to do is stick your hand in the container and… voila! You have a snack. Or pop it in the oven and you’ve got dinner in 12 minutes. And it’s cheap. Well, that’s what you might think initially, but it’s actually NOT cheaper in the long run. More about that later.

Almost every kind of food available has been processed to a degree. Even meat needs to go through some processing before it’s home-cook friendly. (Ever taken a bite straight out of a cow?) There are two questions we ask ourselves when it comes to making food choices:

How different is this food from when it was originally found in nature?

and

Can I track this easily back to its source?

Fresh produce is easy to imagine in nature and trace back to its source. Steaks? Not too hard. Bread? A little tricky. Cheetos? Try a lab.

Conquering the Grocery Store

The battle of making clean food choices isn’t won at the dinner table. It’s actually won when you check out of the grocery store.

Simply put: If it’s in your cart, it’s going home with you. If it’s at home with you, you’re going to eat it.

The best way to keep from eating processed snack food, frozen fast food, and everything else that comes in a box or a bag is not to take it home with you in the first place. Period.

Here are a few tips to help you out as you shop:

Shop the perimeter of the store

With the exception of the spice aisle and a few condiments, that’s where you’ll find most of the actual food. (produce, meat, dairy…)

Do NOT go shopping when you have the munchies

Hopefully we’ve all learned this by now, right?

Go with a list and stick to it

Not only will you save money that way, but you’ll avoid impulse buys on things that you don’t want in your kitchen. In fact, let’s take this one step further and…

Make a meal plan before you go to the store

Planning out your meals is the best thing ever. It’ll keep you from buying things you don’t need at the store plus it’ll relieve your meal-time stress during the week. It works. I promise. If you need help getting started with this, I wrote a post on how I do it. Pre-made meal plans are great, too. I’ve started posting those as well.

Avoid the grocery store altogether

By shopping at farmers’ markets and co-ops, your chances of coming home with anything processed is rather slim… if you can avoid the bakery stands. :)

Weaning

If your current diet relies heavily on processed food and the thought of giving up everything at once scares you out of your mind, take smaller steps. Not everyone is comfortable quitting cold turkey, and if the changes you’re making aren’t comfortable, they won’t stick.

If you need more of a “weaning” approach, here are a few more ideas:

Read ingredient labels carefully

The ingredient section of a label will tell you far more about a product than the nutrition facts. If I happen to buy something processed, these are the major additives I try to avoid:

Hydrogenated oils – It’s awfully hard to avoid all vegetable oils if you’re buying something that’s highly processed, but at least avoid the hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ones.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) – MSG is a common flavor enhancer in processed foods. Look for MSG’s other names, too: hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, or protein isolate. MSG (as well as aspartame and a few other flavor enhancers) is dangerous because it overstimulates the taste centers in our brain which can result in neurological damage. (See Excitotoxins in the Reference section below.)

High-fructose corn syrup – We avoid this as well as other variations of corn syrup, words that end in -ose (fructose, sucrose, etc), and foods that have some type of sugar as one of the first few ingredients. Next week’s topic is all about sugar. Until then…

Preservatives – (like BHA, BHT or anything “to preserve freshness or flavor”) Someone said once, “Shouldn’t we be living longer if our food is filled with preservatives?” Haha. If only…

Artificial Flavorings, Colorings, & Sweeteners – More stuff that I don’t want in my body. An article I linked to below covers food additives in more detail.

Cook from scratch (or learn to cook, period)

It seems that over the past few decades, cooking has been demoted from a life skill to an optional hobby.

A hundred years ago learning to cook really wasn’t an option, and I think that it should still be that way. I’m not saying you have to get all obsessed about it and (heaven forbid) start a food blog, but learning to prepare meals with ingredients (instead of pre-packaged “helpers”) is an important skill to have. Like doing laundry. Or managing money wisely.

If you’re completely lost in the kitchen, take a few classes! Watch YouTube to learn about vegetable prep! If there are people around you who seem more comfortable with cooking, ask them for advice! Ask them for recipes! Find food blogs with similar food philosophies as you have. I find that recipes I try from food blogs often turn out better than ones I find from commercial websites and their cookbooks. And here’s a little secret: the more new recipes you try, the better you’ll be at glancing at the recipe and deciding whether or not it’s something you’ll like. Honest.

Also, don’t be afraid to try new things. With any new skill you acquire (or one you’re trying to improve) there will be bumps along the way, but the more you do something the more adept you become. And even when you think you’ve got things figured out, a dish or two still might not come out right (or your kids will throw it on the floor). It happens. It doesn’t mean we don’t stop trying.

Create a convenient kitchen

This might label myself as an extremely lazy person, but I had to rearrange a few things in my kitchen in order to keep the habits I was trying to form.

Example: I try to use a produce rinse on the non-organic produce I buy, but my large all-purpose plastic bowl was kept in the back of a cupboard with a bunch of stuff stored inside. The thought of digging through all of that stuff to get my bowl out every time almost made me give up the whole produce-rinsing step. So, I moved that big bowl to one of my top cabinets, right next to the stove. Seems like a waste of space, but I ended up using that bowl a lot. I also stick my salad spinner in there because I often use them together. Now I don’t grumble (as much) and try to talk myself out of that extra step.

What I’m trying to say is… arrange your kitchen to allow cooking to be as convenient and easy as possible. Make it work for you!

Health Claims & the Organic “Halo”

Food products that shout things like, “low in sugar”, “low in fat”, “more fiber/omega-3/antioxidants, etc. added!” or my personal favorite overused, meaningless phrase, “all-natural” are trying to convince you that what’s in the package is better than getting those sought-after nutrients from actual food. Watch out for “multi-grain” as well. It only means that there is more than one type of grain in that product (mostly cheap processed ones), and not necessarily whole grains.

Organics have exploded in the processed food world, and while it’s nice that organic products are mostly free from major additives (above), they doesn’t deserve the “halo” they often get. When it comes to processed food, don’t assume everything that is labeled “organic” is good for you. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s can be a wonderful source of clean produce and meat, but I think their abundance of processed food gets more praise than it deserves. At the end of the day those organic cookies, crackers, frozen meals, and boxed mixes are still full of cheap, refined grains and too much salt and/or sugar.

Outside the House

I learned very quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep our normal diet 100% of the time when we’re away from home. Once you leave your house, you give up much of the control you have over what you eat (or at least the quality of what you eat). In our family, we try to keep what goes into our house and eat on a daily basis as clean as we can. That enables us to relax more when we’re traveling, eating out, or spending time with friends and family who might not share our “clean eating” philosophy.

Traveling

Your food selection varies wildly depending on where you are and how long you’ll be gone. When we go on road trips we pack as many healthy snacks as possible and avoid purchasing anything at a gas station other than gas and bottled water. If you plan on staying in a hotel for several days, try out an extended stay hotel that offers kitchenettes. That way you can still stay close to your regular eating habits and avoid eating out at every meal. (Saves money that way, too!)

Eating Out

We consider eating out a special treat and go out maybe 2-3 times a month. If you eat out frequently, try to find restaurants that offer clean, local, or organic options. Sometimes I order vegetarian (depending on my mood and what I’ve eaten recently) to avoid eating meat that’s not up to our standards.

Social or Family Gatherings

It’s easy to be choosy at a restaurant, but we’re invited to eat at someone’s house, I would never ask questions like, “Um, is this grass-fed beef? Is this cheese made from hormone-free milk? Are these whole-grain rolls?”.  We just enjoy the company and the meal that has been prepared for us. I learned very quickly to place more value in nurturing relationships with friends and family rather than stick to a strict eating regimen 100% of the time. (I’m fairly strict when my kids are under the age of 2, though, when they’re forming their food preferences.) If they happen to ask me about what we eat and why, then I’m happy to share.

If you’re at a potluck with a lot of people, you can always bring a cleaner, healthier option in case all there is to eat is hot dogs, hamburgers, and eight different types of chips.

The Cost

One of the biggest concerns I hear about a clean, whole-food diet is how expensive it is and how time consuming it is. After gathering some thoughts I decided that I’ll add this topic to another blog post. For now I’ll tell you that when you avoid buying processed food (especially snacks and sweets), you free up quite a bit of money for cleaner groceries.

A box of crackers might cost you less than a bag of nuts, but you’re getting far fewer nutrients in the crackers. Healthy food costs way less than junk food on a dollar-per-nutrient basis. Plus, healthy, nutrient-dense food will keep you satisfied longer. (And if the bulk of your diet is cheap, processed food, you’ll be paying out more for doctor visits and medications because your health will suffer.)

Assignment!

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to take a big trash bag and clean out all of the processed food in your house. (Although if you wanted to do that, I’d totally support your decision.) Small changes are more permanent, remember?

1. Make one thing from scratch that you would normally buy at the store. 

OR

2. Try out a new recipe using all whole foods.

Resources

Related Articles & Books

12 Food Additives to Remove From Your Diet – Mercola.com
Healthy Eating Shouldn’t Cost an Arm and a Leg – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Cooking Traditionally with Little Time to Cook – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills by Dr. Russell Blaylock (Explores the dangers of aspartame, MSG, and other substances added to our food. My husband is a big fan of this book.)

Homemade Pantry Staples

There are a lot of pantry items that can be made from scratch. Start with the things you use most frequently and are comfortable with doing. For us it was cooking big batches of beans, making our own pancake mix, taco seasoning, and using leftover chickens to make broth. (But I didn’t start all at once!) For others it might be making yogurt, homemade bread, or canning. Just remember: You don’t have to do it all or all at once. As one change becomes routine and part of your lifestyle, try adding another. And then another.

Check out the Pantry Staple section of my index for ideas: Homemade Pantry Staples. Google is nice, too. :)

Homemade Versions of Over-Processed Favorites

Pizza (Check out the Pizza & Crust category in the index!)

Parmesan-Garlic Fish Sticks

Mac ‘n’ Cheese variations: Swiss Chard & Sun-Dried Tomato Skillet Mac, Bacon & Butternut Skillet Mac, Mac ‘n’ Smoked Gouda with Cauliflower

Chicken Strips: Parmesan-Ranch Chicken Strips

Burgers (Yep, they have their own category, too.)

Tacos: Crispy Shredded Chicken Tacos or Black Bean Tacos (my personal favorite), Tropical Fish Tacos w/ Pineapple Salsa, Fish Tacos with Srawberry-Cuke Salsa, Tex Wasabi’s Koi Fish Tacos (These are breaded and fried, but if you’re going to eat fried food, you might as well do it at home where you can control what oil is used.)

Soup: (See the Soups & Stews category!)

Are you enjoying the series so far? If so, spread the word!

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Other posts in this series: (links will be added as posts are published)

Introduction
Fruits & Vegetables
Whole Grains
Getting Your Protein
Healthy Fats
Sweets

Photo Credits: Shutterstock