I used to love boxed potatoes.
Mashed, au gratin… you know which ones I’m talking about, right? They have those little flavor pouches inside and photos of steamy potatoes on the front. Then there was the cheddar-broccoli rice from the same supermarket aisle — mmm. Those boxed wonders were fast, easy, and oh sooo delish!
Well, that’s what I used to think. Then I switched over to ‘real foods’ for a few weeks and that pretty much ruined it for me.
I didn’t switch away from heavily processed foods intentionally, to be honest. It’s just that I was taking some cooking classes and felt motivated to practice my new skills at home. I even made my friends come over to be my guinea pigs, as I experimented with new recipes and ingredients. It was fun!
But as time passed and the excitement died down, I found myself buying the processed foods again. I was working a ton and just didn’t have the capacity to keep up with cooking from scratch.
The problem was that suddenly all I could taste were the chemicals in those boxed foods. Even just pulling the components from the box kind of grossed me out. Plus, it only took a few small bites and I’d get smacked with a dizzying headache. It was the weirdest thing.
What the hell was in those powdered flavor pouches? Why did they taste so strong and ‘fake’ all of a sudden? And why did it feel like my body was starting to reject them?
Real food vs. fake food… our body can tell the difference
The funny thing is that I’ve heard the same story from a few friends who had already walked that path. It seems that once you stop eating 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!”
And it wasn’t just my tastebuds that had adjusted. 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.
A couple of days was literally all it took before I felt like a different person.
But the really fascinating part was how quickly my body had adjusted. A couple of days was literally all it took and I had already started to feel like a 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”.
The problem was keeping it up.
It’s been over a decade since I stopped eating heavily processed, flavor-packed foods and I can tell you, I don’t miss them a bit. But I also have to tell you, it didn’t happen overnight. I continued a cycle of fresh food cooking, then going back to the pre-made stuff several times. I just couldn’t make it stick. Finally, I decided that hey, maybe this would be easier if I took it one step at a time!
As it turns out, that made all the difference.
Stepping (not leaping) toward healthier foods
Health professionals will tell you to ditch processed foods entirely for optimal health. I agree. But we can also agree that cooking fresh foods every day isn’t always easy, so making that the immediate goal can be incredibly stressful. If you currently rely on processed foods to make your days a bit easier, this can be a pretty big leap.
I’m not a nutritionist (just a health-obsessed research nerd) but I’d say: don’t beat yourself up. Unless you’re sick and need to make a drastic change immediately, it can often be more sustainable to make small incremental shifts.
In other words, many of us tend to buy the same foods over and over, right? So swap out one or two “bad” foods at a time for healthier choices. You may find that it doesn’t take much time before those “better” foods become your new norm. So, great! Now, choose your next food.
But how do you prioritize which foods to swap out? I started by eliminating the heavily processed foods as the first step and didn’t worry as much about minimally processed foods. In fact, I still treat myself to minimally processed foods on occasion. What’s the difference? Let’s look at a few examples.
An example of heavily-processed food
Remember those packages of pouch-flavored potatoes and cheesy rice I mentioned? I’d consider those “foods” to be heavily processed. Both contain milk and yet both come in a cardboard box that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. That doesn’t sound right, does it? And look at that label below — why are there so many ingredients for a simple potato dish?
In fact, I don’t even think they have an expiration date on the box. The makers add a bunch of synthetic (lab-made) ingredients to give these “foods” a certain taste and texture, as well as artificial preservatives to keep these foods shelf-stable. Skip that sh*t… it’s so heavily processed that it’s not real food anymore.
Instead, slice up a few potatoes and drizzle on some olive oil, rosemary, and sea salt. Bake it at 350°F for 30 or 40 mins (depending on how thick or thin you cut the potatoes and how crisp you like them). Be sure to flip them about halfway through, so they don’t stick to the pan. If you like your potatoes cheesy, sprinkle on some parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast for flavor. A swap like this sounds doable, right?
Minimally processed foods are simpler
As a nice contrast to the synthetic ingredients and artificial preservatives, take a look at these apple snacks. Dehydrated fruits have a long shelf-life, simply by removing their water content… which you can easily do in your own oven on low heat (below 115°F), or even in the sun.
Of course, you can also just eat an apple!
The manufacturer might add some cinnamon or other natural spice for flavor (like the below example does). 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.
Example: French fries and chips can be healthy… or not
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 your own healthy version of 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 olive 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. Can you believe all the ingredients that go into fast-food fries (see below)? And how many of those ingredients are actually food? Gross.
Example: Fruit vs. fruit roll-up snacks
We’ve already talked about dehydrated fruit as a healthy treat, but fruit can be processed into an unhealthy snack too. Eat it fresh or buy some frozen berries to throw into a smoothie and you’ll enjoy their amazing vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and health-promoting antioxidants. But that box of strawberry fruit roll-ups? Mmm, probably not.
Yes, there are brands that take a healthier approach, turning fruit into a naturally sweet (boxed) snack without adding harmful ingredients. (Annie’s below is a good example.) The end product doesn’t look like strawberries anymore, but these snacks are minimally processed with no added chemicals and they do retain some of their nutrients. I’d consider these ingredients to be relatively healthy compared to most commercial brands.
Many of the larger brands don’t even use real fruit! Ok, fine. Maybe you’ll find a minimal amount of fruit… but what you’ll find even more of, is high fructose corn syrup and other unnatural ingredients. The label below lists corn syrup, dried corn syrup, and sugar before there’s even a mention of fruit! And what the hell are those other ingredients — red 40, blue 1 — are you kidding?
Compare the labels for General Mills (below) and Annie’s (above). If your kids are bugging you for a candy-like treat and you can’t get them to eat a piece of real fruit, which of these rollups would you rather they have? I’d choose Annie’s by a longshot.
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 harmful farming chemicals. While conventionally grown produce is not considered ‘processed’ by any means, their synthetic biocides have been shown to make their way into both our fresh and packaged foods.
Choosing organic ingredients is something else to think about if your transition away from processed foods is motivated by the desire to eliminate chemicals from your diet.
Taking incremental steps, starting with minimally processed foods
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?
Yes, aim for all fresh foods — it’s a worthy goal. But it’s probably more realistic to just ditch the heavily processed foods for now, then continue to swap out the bad for the good, one at a time. Taking incremental steps can be an easier way to create new habits that actually last.
As luck would have it, there are plenty of health-conscious brands to help you make the transition. They minimally process their ingredients and use real food in place of cheap chemicals. Again, minimally processed foods are closer to their natural state and have few (if any) synthetic ingredients.
So, flip the package over to read the ingredients label. Make sure you recognize most (if not all) the contents as something you would find in nature. It’s a good first step toward banishing those boxed potatoes, so you can make room for the healthy flavors of the real deal!
ZEGO (Minimally Processed, Allergen-Free Fruit Snacks)