I used to love those boxes of flavored potatoes au gratin and the cheddar-broccoli rice from the supermarket. They’re fast, they’re easy, and I used to think they were sooo delish! Until I switched over to ‘real foods’ for a couple weeks. That pretty much ruined it for me. After that, all I could taste were the chemicals in those boxed foods. Plus, it only took a few small bites and I’d get smacked with a dizzying headache.
I didn’t switch away from heavily processed foods intentionally, to be honest. It’s just that I was taking some cooking classes and, as it happens, I was motivated to try everything at home that I was learning in class. I even made my friends come over every other night to be my guinea pigs, as I experimented with new recipes and with foods that I hadn’t cooked on my own before. It was fun!
But after some time passed and the excitement died down, I found myself buying the processed foods again. I was working more than full-time and I just didn’t have the capacity to keep up with cooking from scratch. The problem was that, now, even just pulling the components from the box kind of grossed me out. What the hell was in those powdered flavor pouches and why did they taste so strong and ‘fake’ all of the sudden?
It’s crazy how quickly our taste buds and body adjust!
I heard the same story from a few friends who had already walked that path. It seems that once you stop eating the artificial flavors and other lab-developed ingredients, your taste buds recalibrate and quickly start to label the fake stuff as “ewww” and the natural stuff as “hell yeah!”.
I noticed a significant energy shift as well. Digestion takes so much energy and I was really overburdening my poor liver with all those synthetic ingredients. Once I moved over to real food, it was like a giant fog had lifted from my brain. My thoughts were clearer, I slept better, I jumped out of bed more easily, and I was way more productive at work.
The coolest part was how quickly my body had adjusted. A couple of days was literally all it took and I started to feel like a whole different person. And all I had to do was start eating foods that were closer to their natural state, while eliminating what food activist, Michael Pollan, calls “food-like substances”.
It’s been over a decade since I stopped eating those heavily processed foods and I can tell you, I don’t miss a thing.
Heavily-processed vs. minimally-processed food
A lot of folks on a health kick will tell you to ditch processed foods entirely, but I’m not sure I agree. Food that has been altered in any way is considered “processed”, so I think it’s more realistic to eliminate the heavily processed foods and not worry as much about minimally processed foods.
For example, I would consider those packages of au gratin potatoes and cheesy rice to be heavily processed. Both contain milk and yet both come in a cardboard box that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. In fact, I don’t even think they have an expiration date on the box. The makers use artificial preservatives to keep these foods shelf stable.
By contrast, dehydrated apple snacks have a long shelf life, simply by removing the apple’s water content. The manufacturer may have added some cinnamon or other natural spice for flavor. But assuming nothing synthetic has been added and the apple itself hasn’t been materially changed, I’d call this a minimally processed food.
Let’s look at a few other examples.
Minimally Processed, Allergen-Free Fruit Snacks
French fries and chips
Fresh potatoes that come from your garden, the farmer’s market, or the produce aisle of the supermarket are in their natural state. You can cut them up and add some salt and olive oil to make french fries or you can slice them thinly to make chips. When you buy them at the market and the only ingredients on the label are the potatoes, salt, and some oil, I’d consider them to be minimally processed.
By contrast, fast food french fries and commercially packaged chips tend to be heavily processed. Artificial flavoring and other synthetic ingredients are added in order to enhance their taste and shelf life.
Fruit vs. fruit roll-up snacks
Fruit is another good example. Eat it fresh or buy some frozen berries to throw into a smoothie and enjoy their vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and health-promoting antioxidants. But that box of strawberry fruit rollups? Mmm, probably not.
Yes, there are some healthier brands that do turn this fruit into a naturally sweet snack for kids without adding harmful ingredients. They don’t look like strawberries anymore, but these snacks are minimally processed with no added chemicals and do retain a good amount of their nutrients.
Here’s one example. I’d consider these ingredients to be pretty healthy compared to most commercial brands of the same snack.
Many of the larger brands don’t even use real fruit! Ok, maybe you’ll find a minimal amount of fruit, but it may not even be the fruit that’s advertised on the label. What you will find is plenty of high fructose corn syrup and other unnatural ingredients you probably don’t want your kids to eat.
Conventionally grown produce isn’t considered ‘processed’, however…
Organic fruits and veggies are grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. This is in contrast to conventionally grown produce, which does employ these farming chemicals. While conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are not considered ‘processed’ by any means, their synthetic biocides have been shown to make their way into both our fresh and packaged foods.
This is something to think about if your transition away from processed foods is motivated by the desire to eliminate chemicals from your diet.
Packaged foods that are minimally processed
Life isn’t necessarily going to slow down for us, just because we want to cook healthier foods. Sure, if I had all the time in the world, I’d make every meal from scratch and you probably would too. But that’s not always a reality, is it?
As luck would have it, we don’t have to give up the convenience of packaged foods altogether. There are plenty of health-conscious brands that minimally process their ingredients and use real food in place of cheap chemicals in their recipes.
Minimally processed foods are close to their natural state and have few (if any) synthetic ingredients. Always flip the package over to read the ingredients label to make sure you recognize most (if not all) the contents as something you would find in nature.
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