Processed vs. Unprocessed Food
In America, we are often so removed from the source of our food that we don't really know where it comes from, what it originally looked like, nor what has been done to it before it reaches us. In fact, we often don't even realize the variety of food that exists (and I don't mean the variety of food that we manufacture, but the variety that God has made). I never knew there were more than a few varieties of potatoes (russet, red and sweet) until I met someone who grew up in Peru where there are over 60 varieties available in the local markets.
The industrial revolution changed our relationship to food in two ways: People moved into the cities and became more distanced (physically and culturally) from their food sources. And as food had to travel farther (and therefore keep longer) methods of processing evolved to keep the food from going bad. (White flour can last for a year or longer. Whole wheat flour will go rancid in a matter of weeks.) People bought their food in markets and rarely knew where their food came from nor how it was grown or raised. Which brings us to where we are today where children can easily be tricked into thinking that chocolate milk comes from chocolate cows because they don't have any experience with real cows that would prove such an idea wrong. (Or, worse yet, they may think that milk comes from cartons and not from cows!)
If we don't know what the food looks like in the raw, then we probably don't know what was done to it before it reached our dinner tables. We may not know how it was processed (such information is rarely included on the label). And if we've always eaten the food after processing (or after its gotten quite old during transit and storage) then we don't know what it tastes like when its whole and fresh. We don't know if it has been improved or rendered flavorless in the time between the farm and our dinner table.
Processing isn't always bad, but it is good to understand better what has been done to our food. Though any kind of food can be processed, I want to focus on one particular example--turning wheat into flour--to highlight both the positives and negatives of processing.
A Brief Peek at the History of Flour
In the 1840s, in Hungary, a new process of milling flour was introduced. According to Reay Tannahill in her book, Food in History,
As white flour became cheaper and more common, many people began falling ill due to diseases caused by lack of proper nutrition. Several vitamins and minerals had been removed from the flour and not replaced. (See "The Scoop on Wheat" below.) In the early 1900¼s, doctors were beginning take in patients with diverticular disease which they believed was caused by a low-fiber diet. This was the first time that such a disease had been noticed in the US and it coincided with the introduction of processed foods to the American diet. In fact, according to Reay Tannahill, in Britain „in 1917-18, ... 2.5 million men, theoretically in their physical prime and from all classes of society, were given a medical examination prior to military conscription. Forty-one percent of them turned out to be not only in poor health but unfit for service, and it was clear that undernourishment was at the root of the problem in most cases.¾ (page 334 of Food in History) It wasn't because these men didn't have enough food to eat. It was because the food they were eating had had the nutrients processed right out.
Eventually the medical community made the connection between the new diseases they were seeing (scurvy, rickets, beri-beri, etc.) and the processing of food. In fact, it was because of these events that vitamins were first discovered. (The discovery of minerals in food would come later.) Because of this discovery, white flour was "fortified" with some of the vitamins that had been taken out (most notably the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin and niacin) as well as some of the minerals that had been removed. But not every thing that is taken out is put back in (most notably fiber), nor is it put back in in the same form in which it was taken out (a form that is easier for the body to digest).
A study has been done that showed "that eating more than four servings of whole grain food a week reduces the chance of many cancers by about 40%." (Bandolier, "Evidence Based Eating") And "a new study from the American Journal of Nutrition suggests that women who eat whole grain foods have a lower risk of dying from a heart attack later in life.¾ (Dr. Bob Goldstone, „More Whole Grain Food Helps!¾ Pacific Life)
Our choice of refined flour over whole grain flour can affect other aspects of our lives as well. According to Dr. Gary Smalley in his book food and love, „the most dramatic affect refined flour has on our moods is its ability to make us numb and mentally confused.¾ (p.43)
There are similar problems with the processing of many other foods. According to Paul Mason, „The greater the shortfall [of one¼s daily recommended intake of magnesium], the higher the rate of hypertensive heart disease. Researchers have been saying this for decades, even as the AMA and FDA deprived Americans of magnesium by approving the removal of magnesium from foodstuffs through processing....¾ (Paul Mason, „Race, Mg Deficiency, and Voting Rights,¾) How many other vitamins or minerals are removed from our food without our realizing? The food in its most unprocessed state contains all of the nutrients that God intended for it. When we process the food, removing those nutrients, we¼re basically playing Russian roulette, setting ourselves up for diseases or malnutrition. (We have discovered some of the diseases that spring up as a result of the processing of food, but with how many others have we not yet made the connection?)
There are many degrees to which food can be processed. American cheese is highly processed. Cheddar cheese is lightly processed. There are even some foods that the FDA recommends be processed (apple juice should be pasteurized to kill off any E. coli) and foods that should be eaten with caution when not processed (such as eating soft cheeses like brie or soft queso which should not be eaten by pregnant women or small children because of a bacteria called listeria). But in general, eating less processed food is better for your health.
If you decide to start eating food that is less processed than what you are currently eating, you may want to take it slow. It can be a shock to your system (as well as to your sensibilities) to make the change over night. When a drug addict quits cold turkey, the addict¼s body goes through such agony that it almost seems like the healthier option would be to go back to using drugs. In the same way, if your body is used to white flour and other processed foods, then quitting cold turkey may do strange things to your system. You would be better off changing your diet slowly so that both you and your body can get used to the idea. And take heart, according to Dr. Gary Smalley, „It takes only two weeks for your taste buds to change.¾ Before long you may actually start to prefer the healthier, less processed foods.
Our taste buds can only sense four basic tastes: sour, bitter, salty and sweet. Everything else that we think of as flavor (80-90% of what we taste, in fact) is actually taken in through our sense of smell. (Hence the fact that food seems so boring when we are sick and can¼t smell.)
In San Francisco, we shared cooking responsibilities for our weekly house meetings. On the nights I would cook, I was sometimes offended that certain housemates, no matter what I had made, would douse their food with either vinegar or salt. As far as I was concerned, they were adding so much of one flavor that they were covering up all the others. Another friend that would taste my cooking always cried out for more sugar. In looking back at these people and their penchant for the flavors of the tongue (as opposed to the flavors of the nose), I have begun to wonder if perhaps they are losing their sense of smell. In order to make up for it, they try to add as much tongue taste to their food as they can.
In considering sugar, and our abundant use of it as Americans, I wonder how often we have chosen the flavorless, though sweet, foods over the flavorful and less sweet. A typical white cake really has very little flavor. We count on the icing (and any pudding or jello "inserts") to add flavor to the overall taste of the cake. But a whole grain cake, sweetened with less refined sugars, can be bursting with flavor. (Just ask Rob about his favorite -- oatmeal cake.)
I did quite a bit of research about sugars. I have included, in its entirety, a very good article on the problems with sugar under the Food Pyramid section of this booklet. I have also listed several resources under the bibliography. But, since the problem is not just with sugar, but more specifically refined sugar, I include a short summary here of the problem with refined (highly processed) sugar. Perhaps as we become aware of the problems that sugar creates, and as we learn to use alternatives as well as to change our eating habits, we'll begin to find more flavor than just sweet in our food.
The problem with sugar, according to Sara Bungarmer, is that "refined sugar acts more like a drug that our bodies need to detoxify rather than a nutrient-supplying food. Important nutrients such as chromium, manganese, cobalt, copper, zinc and magnesium are stripped away in sugar refining, and our bodies actually have to use their own mineral reserves just to digest it."
And when Sara refers to sugar, she doesn't just mean white sugar. She explains the difference between refined and unrefined carbohydrates (which the body turns into sugar) by saying, "Natural, unrefined, unprocessed carbohydrates are surrounded and mixed with protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Refined carbohydrates are toxic to the body, as they are not surrounded with these nutrients. The degree of toxicity for a carbohydrate depends upon the degree of refinement. Whole wheat is non-toxic (unless allergic to it) whereas the processing and refining of it to make white flour destroys the nutrients, removes the fiber, and makes it pure starch. Examples of processed carbohydrates include foods [such] as polished white rice, and all things made with white flour such as pasta, bread and bagels, or that has added sugar to them." (And Sara is not the only one saying all this. I found the same from information from many different sources. Sara just put it all together well.)
Consider trying out a few less refined sugars. A list of options (and descriptions) can be found on the next page. Read the Nutrition Facts on the packaging in search of vitamins or minerals.
Blackstrap Molasses has 8% of your daily calcium requirements, 10% of B6, 8% of Magnesium and a whopping 20% of your daily iron requirements. (You should use organic molasses, however. Blackstrap molasses is the end result of the sugar making process -- the leftovers, if you will. Since the impurities have been removed from the refined sugar, and the refined sugar is what was basically extracted from the molasses, the molasses therefore has any pesticide residues that the original sugar cane might have contained.) Maple syrup doesn't pack quite the same punch nutritionally as molasses, but it does have 6% of your daily calcium requirements and 8% of your iron. And the sorghum that the Kramers lug home from Scott's family has 20% of your daily potassium requirements, 10% of your calcium and 15% of your iron.
So try a little sorghum on your corn bread, molasses in your cookies, and maple syrup in your oatmeal. (See also, Alternatives to White Sugar below.)
Less processed food often has fewer preservatives, though that's not a guaranteed relationship. And more processed food generally contains more preservatives, but again that's not set in stone. You have to read the ingredients (and nutrition facts) for anything you buy. You can't just assume that because you're paying more for an item, or because you're buying it from a health food store, that its preservative free.
Preservatives are not a new invention, nor are they all bad. Salt is a preservative. Without preservatives many foods will get moldy or rancid over a period of time. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that they'll become hazardous to your health, but they will taste different. And since much of the food we eat tends to come from fairly far away, it is especially important that the food has not spoiled before it even makes it to the grocery store.
There are two main categories of preservatives. According to the FDA, "Preservatives serve as either antimicrobials or antioxidants-- or both. As antimicrobials, they prevent the growth of molds, yeasts and bacteria. As antioxidants, they keep foods from becoming rancid, browning, or developing black spots." All preservatives must be put through "rigorous tests" before being allowed into the food supply. However, the FDA itself admits that some preservatives are cancer causing (BHA) and that others can cause adverse reactions in people (sulfites).
Basically, to sum up my brief study of preservatives, I have found that preservatives can have both very positive and very negative effects, hence the huge debate over them. If they were only mediocre in their effectiveness, then food producers might choose not to use them. If they were only mediocre in their affects upon peoples health, then environmentalists and those with allergic reactions probably wouldn't bother to try to get certain preservatives pulled from the market. So choosing to eat foods laden with preservatives is a toss up.
I believe the issue can be circumvented to some extent by simply eating fresh food. The fresher the food, the better it tastes. (I suspect that is why Connie's homemade salsa tastes better than the store bought variety that is full of preservatives. The preservatives may or may not change the taste, but if the salsa took several months (or even years?) to get from the producer to Connie's table, then it just won't taste as fresh as home made.) Also, foods tend to taste better when they are in season. You can get tomatoes in January, but they don't have much flavor. But when you pull a plump, juicy tomato off of the vine in your backyard and bite in... fireworks light up the sky, parades march down your street and the president calls to congratulate you on a tomato well done. (OK, so maybe its not that exciting, but you get the idea.)
And if you are allergic to any preservatives, be sure to read the labels carefully!
I briefly want to add a few words on oils. Oils (such as canola, corn, etc.) can be made two different ways: the old fashioned way, which is to press the oil out of the seed, or the more common way today, which is to use chemicals to remove the oil. The use of chemicals is more efficient in terms of getting more oil out of the seed (leaving 1-3% oil in the grain as opposed to 5-13% left by pressing), however, the chemicals remain behind in the meal and are then fed to animals who develop problems such as anemia. These solvents are also classified as carcinogens according to the EPA. Commercial oils are also bleached and deodorized in order to improve shelf life (though removing flavor and color). (see Spectrum Naturals for more info.)