THOUSANDS of years ago, humans learned to make and control fire. It wasn’t long before we figured out how to apply heat to food to make it more palatable and, in most cases, safer for consumption. This marked the beginning of food proces sing. Heating, like freezing, canning, dehydration, pickling, pasteurising and fermentation, is a method of changing food from one state to another before consumption, which is essentially what food processing is.
“Not all processed foods are classified as unhealthy, because the act of processing helps to preserve food and keep them from spoilage,” nutritionist Shannon Grant explained. “However, some processed foods have a high level of sugar, salt and fat. That is where the difference lies.”
She said Jamaicans consume a variety of processed foods.
“Our national dish includes salt fish as a major component, which is a processed ingredient (the salt that has been added is for preservation).
“White rice and white bread are also major components of the Jamaican diet, which are also processed food items,” Grant said.
There are different degrees of food processing, ranging from minimally processed foods to highly processed foods. Minimally processed foods are those foods that have undergone very little change from their natural state when they get to the consumer. These foods may have been washed, peeled, pasteurised, or milled for convenience, but are very close, in both appearance and nutritional content, to their original form.
Moderately processed foods have undergone a fair amount of change, and might have multiple ingredients added for preservation and flavouring. These foods might still require further preparation, and retain much of their original nutritional content
Highly processed foods are those foods that have been formulated by the food industry, and consist of numerous ingredients and additives, and are no longer identified as either of their natural ingredients. These include items such as sweets, hot dogs, most baked goods, breakfast cereals, and items identified as ‘ready to eat’ or ‘convenience foods’. It is often this category of food that gets loosely referred to as ‘processed foods’.
There are many benefits to food processing; on the flip side, however, the further away an item is removed from its natural state, the less nutritional benefits it provides. Highly processed foods contain many artificial chemicals which are added for preservation, colour, texture and flavour. These chemicals often add many extra calories without adding any nutritional value.
“What happens is that the over-consumption of processed foods that have high levels of salt, fat and sugar is where the problem lies, especially if this is coupled with physical inactivity and a diet that is not balanced and lacking fruits and vegetables,” said Grant.
“This can bring rise to chronic non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and can lead to becoming overweight or obese. Also, foods high in trans-fat can lead to high cholesterol which can cause clogging of the arteries.”
Many of us are guilty of consuming processed foods daily, because they are convenient and they taste good. There is no need to despair, however, as Grant also shared ways in which our bodies can improve if we limit our intake of highly processed foods.
“A reduction in the consumption of processed foods can lead to a plethora of good things happening to our bodies. Weight loss can be obtained from reducing the consumption of these foods; however, it must be noted that the reduction of processed foods has to go hand in hand with proper food portioning and exercising. Also, that sleepy, lethargic feeling we get after eating a heavy lunch that is usually loaded with processed foods can be eliminated by eating more wholesome, unrefined foods.”
You may wonder, now, if it is possible for you to just save yourself the trouble and just avoid processed foods altogether.
Grant gives this recommendation: “It is possible to completely avoid processed foods; however in this day and age it is not a very easy task. What is easier to accomplish is to reduce the consumption of foods that are highly processed with salt, sugars and fats by reading labels. We can also try our best to lessen some of the preservatives that are used in the processing of the foods before consumption. So, for example, the salt fish can be soaked and boiled to remove the excess salt before consumption, as well as draining and rinsing of canned food items to remove some of the substances present.”