What makes a food “processed” and why does it matter to physical and mental health


Working on a book about the mind body connection and wanted to share this with y’all…

The idea of processed food is super vague. Technically, once we CHEW our food in order to swallow it without choking, we’ve processed it. Even putting aside that fact, the the US dietary guidelines uses a very broad definition of what “processed” means:

Any raw agricultural commodity [product] that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling. Processing certain foods can make them last longer by killing organisms in the food or slowing their growth.

True all of this. Processing foods allowed us to carry harvest through multiple seasons, especially before refrigerating. Canning, drying, fermenting foods kept us alive after the harvest. Processing can also make foods safer, as mentioned (cooked versus raw chicken anyone?) and could also create better bioavailability of the nutrition contained within (like the nixtamalizaion of corn into hominy, the sprouting of grains, etc.).

So many of us trying to do better, kept hearing that we should avoid processed food but most of our food (no matter what type of diet we ascribe to) includes processed food. So just in the past few years, a team from the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil took on the tasking of defining the processing of food as a spectrum with a scale that helps us determine where we are veering into an unhealthy territory. It was published as part of “The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing" and you can find the whole thing online, if that’s your kink. But here are their basic classifications:

Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods: This includes the edible parts of any foods (plant or animal based) after they have been harvested from their natural source. Any processing would not be including anything like oils or salts or whatever. It may include removing parts that are inedible, roasting or broiling something, drying, freezing, fermenting something without alcohol, or squeezing something (like getting juice from fruit).

Processed Culinary Ingredients: This is essentially our oils, fats, salts, and sugars. Like honey removed from a honeycomb, maple syrup extracted from a tree, sugar processed from sugar cane or sugar beets, salt harvested from the eas, oils extracted from a plant (like olive oil extracted from olives). These are all ingredients that are created by pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining.

Processed Foods: These are foods that are a combination of the first two groups. So a naturally or minimally processed food that has a processed culinary ingredient added to it. Still not bad right? Salt cured lemons would be processed while simply dried lemons would not. Me toasting a mix of nuts in a little bit of olive oil with salt and spices would be a processed food, while eating them raw or merely sprouting them or toasting them would not. So even at this level, we are seeing that processed isn’t bad. This is how we make things taste good. 

Ultra- Processed Foods: This is where we get into ingredients that you couldn’t replicate at home (think hydrogenated oils, hydrolyzed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dyes, stabilizers, and emulsifiers). They are comprised of industrialized forumlas that were synthesized in laboratory settings. They have little (if anything) to do with the Category 1 foods. Think candy bars, cake mixes, breakfast cereal, instant noodles, most pre-packaged frozen foods. They take yummy because they were frankensteined to do so but they aren’t FOOD.

So when we are talking about processed foods being a problem, we are talking about these ultra-processed foods. These are the foods that have been correlated with higher risks of cancer, metabolic syndrome, and death from any cause. In the United States, 61% of an adult's total diet comes from ultraprocessed foods. We aren’t alone though, the proportion in Canada is 62% and in the UK its 63%. Awareness makes a huge difference in lessening our canned food consumption. Finland in the 1980s had the highest rate of cardiovascular disease fatalities. Scientists attributed the high rate to the added sodium in food. And as I am typing this, I’m realizing we need another nerd moment.

Salt, like what we add to our food to make it taste delicious, is composed of sodium and chloride. Sodium added to food as a preservative is not the same thing as your nice himalayan pink salt you sprinkled on your tomatoes. We generally aren’t getting too much salt, but we are often getting too much sodium. Sodium is used to enhance color and give things a firmer texture. More than 75% of the salt in our diet is coming from sodium added to ultra-processed foods as a preservative. So when you see “no salt added” on your can of beans, that’s the one you want to buy, it means no added sodium. And you will salt it to your taste level when you’re cooking at home. So that’s what the Finiish government did. Anything with a high sodium content got a big honking “DON’T BUY THIS SHIT” label on it.

Ok, not really. It got a label that said “High Salt Content” (meaning high sodium, but since they get used interchangeably people got the message). So by 2007, sodium consumption had dropped 30% in Finland and that led to a 75% decrease in deaths from strokes and heart disease.

Ultra-processed foods are also correlated with mental health issues. The journal PLOS ONE published a randomized controlled trial published a study where depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms decreased from the “moderate” range to the “normal” range after only three weeks of eating a diet that significantly reduced ultra-processed food consumption. It wasn’t a special fancy diet, just a general “Mediterranean-style pattern” according to the study, meaning food instead of crap. The control group continued to eat refined carbs, sugary foods, beverages, and other ultra-processed meals and showed no decrease in their depression scores.

Who is most likely to eat ultra-processed foods? Young people, poor people, and people who live alone. We all get targeted, but these are the people who are the biggest ”marks” of the industry, which makes sense.  First of all, they taste good. Food scientists figured out the ideal leel of salt to fat, the right amount of crunch or creamyness, and the general mouthfeel to not only make things taste good, but hijack our brain’s ability to signal satiety. Instead of getting the “we’re full” we get a “carry on” message.

Also?  They’re cheaper. Cheaper in money and cheaper in labor and time. The processed package food industry is extraordinarily efficient and using cheap ingredients to create “meals” to sell. They have also benefit from government subsidies in a way that broccoli farmers have not.

You don’t have to go completely off the grid, or give up all of your favorite treats forever to make big changes. Remember a 30% reduction in sodium intake alone caused a 75% reduction in cardivascular death? Start by reading labels. Get the no salt (sodium!) added canned beans and veggies, get the no sugar added fruits. Swap out flour tortillas for corn at the taco stand. If you aren’t ready to give up the fast food french fries and chicken nuggies, you can still switch out the soda for an iced tea in your combo meal.

And cook at home as much as you possibly can. A chocolate cake from a local bakery is generally way less processed than one from the supermarket and one baked at home even more so.

To get me off my obsession with cake mix cakes as a kid, my mom taught me the “wacky cake” recipe. Wacky cake (also known as crazy cake) doesn’t require eggs, milk, or butter so it was really popular during the Great Depression and during war-time rationing so it is naturally a plan-based recipe. You can also make it gluten free and/or sugar free really easily.

1 1/2 cups flour (you can also use cassava flour for this. Typically cassava flour works in the same ratio as all-purpose flour if measured by weight instead of cups. This recipe is super forgiving AND the weight difference is only a couple of grams so you don’t have to fuss with it, just use the same 1.5)

3 Tbsp. cocoa (unsweetened)

1 cup sugar (you can use coconut sugar, or a granulated keto sugar substitute)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp.  salt

1 tsp.vinegar (white, apple cider vinegar)

1 tsp.  pure vanilla extract

5 tbsp. Oil (I use avocado oil generally, I’ve used coconut oil in this recipe and I thought the cake was too dense. I don’t use vegetable oils generally, but if canola oil is what you have go forth and use it...again still wayyyyyy healthier than a box cake mix).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix the first 5 dry ingredients in a greased 8″ square baking pan.  THAT’S RIGHT, WE DON’T EVEN NEED A BOWL. Make 3 divots in dry ingredients – two small, one larger Pour vinegar in one divot, vanilla in the other and the oil in the third larger divot. Pour water over all. Mix well until smooth, a fork works perfectly. Bakey-bake for about 35 minutes. Check with a toothpick in the middle to make sure it comes out clean (officially done, no goopies). Let is cool.

I grew up eating it just as is, but you can definitely make a frosting for it. There are also a bunch of variations on the recipe  if you search the interwebz (PUMPKIN SPICE Y’ALL)