What goes into your body is the single most important determinant into what your final results will be. So it makes perfect sense to really drill down into what the difference is between “real” food and “processed” food. In the last 50 years, food companies and supermarkets have spent billions of research and development dollars into creating more convenient and longer-lasting food options.
But while the goals of increased choice and convenience seem like good ones, the fact of the matter is that this increased choice has come at the expense of blurring the line between what is real food and what is processed. All of that extra shelf life and tastiness comes at a cost – and it’s often a cost that is worn by the consumers of the products when it comes to their health and weight.
But you’ve probably heard all of that before. So let’s find out the actual reasons that you should always stick to real, unprocessed food, rather than its processed alternative.
The Meaning of “Processed Foods”
For our purposes, it’s important to understand what we mean by “processed” foods. After all, you could argue that milk or pre-packaged mince from the butcher is processed between its original state to its ready for sale version. But our definition of processed doesn’t seek to demonise foods that have been processed to transform them into a different form for sale (like turning whole meat into mince) or that have been treated for safety reasons (like pasteurising milk).
When we say processed food, we are talking about food that has been chemically altered or supplemented in order to increase its shelf life or taste. This increase in shelf life or taste often comes with the addition of a kaleidoscope of artificial preservatives, colours, and flavours.
For example, have you ever stopped to think why fresh bread from a bakery begins to go stale after three to four days, but those supposedly “fresh” wraps from supermarket aisles can have shelf lives of three months or more? Most of the ingredients are the same: flour, water, salt, and a little yeast.
But it’s the addition of stabilisers, emulsifiers, and preservatives that chemically change those simple ingredients that are fresh for just a week into something that can be kept on the shelf without spoiling for months on end. So now you know the difference, let’s look at some common culprits in everyday life.
There is zero secret that sugar tastes good, and we are hard-wired to crave it. But what is less known is that sugar is added to most processed foods for a particular purpose. It’s to cover up bad taste. When food is altered chemically by preservatives or emulsifiers, the natural taste changes. And that change is not good. In fact, it’s downright unpleasant. To compensate, food companies load up preservative-laden foods with high amounts of sugar to change the taste back to something palatable.
For example, did you realise that supermarket tomato and barbecue sauce is loaded with sugar? Probably not. What if we asked you to guess what percentage of your sauce was sugar? 10%? 25%? The true answer is actually a whopping 50% for most popular brands, meaning half of your sauce is just sugar. The other common trick used by manufacturers to duck out of the “added sugar” trap is to add a potent sweetener called high fructose corn syrup.
As the name suggests, this syrup is created from corn and hyper-refined to produce a sickly sweet liquid that can be added to everything from biscuits to ice cream to give it some extra sweetness without adding actual sugar.
The downside of all of this added and hidden sugar is that you get huge energy spikes with zero additional “building blocks” of essential vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to operate and stay healthy. It also has a definite negative effect on long-term health with heart disease. In addition, reduced insulin sensitivity often leads to diabetes, another of the major health concerns arising from the prevalence of high sugar in the majority of processed foods.
Hacking Your Body – Overeating and Addiction
If you were creating a consumer product, the ideal mix of attributes would be that it was cheap, tasty, and easy to access, transport, and consume. Those guiding principles have been embraced by the biggest food and drink companies for decades, resulting in Coke, Pepsico, Frito-Lay, McDonald’s, and KFC all being global brands selling billions of food items each year.
But the unspoken attribute that is less talked about is that the ideal consumer product should also be addictive. Nicotine in cigarettes is a prime example of this, as is the caffeine in coffee and energy drinks.
But very few naturally occurring (legal) addictive substances like nicotine and caffeine exist, and it would be near impossible to put either in most foods. So food companies compensated by ploughing years and billions of research dollars into making foods as desirable, pleasurable, and physiologically rewarding as possible – essentially, hacking the brains of consumers to want more and more.
The goal is simple: to tap into the pleasure centres of the brain to form a connection between a particular food and those good feelings.
These efforts are then backed by strong advertising and marketing campaigns that run for years. The red and white branding of Coca-Cola and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are consistently at the top of global brand rankings in terms of value because of this.
Processed food is designed to be addictive and over consumed, and because of that, it becomes more desirable than real food that is complex, nutrient-dense, balanced and natural.
The way food is packaged and presented in advertising sticks to a fairly basic formula: make it look wholesome, appealing, and add a serving suggestion or two on the pack with photographs included to increase these desirability factors.
So a loaf of bread might include some stalks of wheat on the front packaging (wholesome, natural, appealing) along with a photo of some well-spread avocado, fresh tomatoes, and roast chicken on an open sandwich on the back packaging (increased desirability).
But for most foods, these tactics are there to overshadow what is actually the most important part of food packaging: the nutrition table and ingredients list. Take what is usually taken as a very wholesome, natural product with very few added ingredients: the humble muesli bar.
The packaging of that product usually hits all of the major points: oats scattered across a great photo of the product, some cut fruit included to reinforce the fruit content in the bar, and earthy colour choices to reinforce the “natural” elements.
But the ingredients list tells a different story. Multiple preservatives to increase shelf life, added sugar, added flavourings, and emulsifiers to stop caking and improve presentation are all present in what most people would assume to be a bar with three to four ingredients (oats and two types of fruit).
Once again, what is just beneath the surface of the glossy packaging goes a long way to explaining why processed foods that require long ingredient lists are responsible for poor health outcomes compared to natural food.
No healthy diet plan or targeted full body workout plan will work effectively if you are being sneakily undermined by foods that incorporate these sorts of negatives by stealth. The result will be like paddling a canoe with multiple leaks – you might make some forward progress, but your goal to get abs in your 40s by sticking to a full body workout plan will be far slower than it should be.
Fibre is one of those “unsexy” food components that is more often associated with cereal for older consumers than it is with tasty food or health benefits. That is a mistake. Fibre has a vitally important role in feeding the good bacteria in the gut. These bacteria are called prebiotics and are largely responsible for making sure that our body actually extracts all of the nutrients and vitamins that we eat, refines them into something usable, and then converts them to the building blocks for a healthy body.
However, processed foods are largely lacking in natural fibre, because much of the process to get them shelf-ready eliminates husks, skin, and flesh close to the core of fruit and vegetable, where most of the good stuff resides.
The Wrap Up
This is one of the longer posts we’ve written because the negative effects of processed foods are so prevalent and well-researched. It may surprise you to learn that this could have easily been twice as long, as we haven’t covered anywhere near all of the benefits about why natural “real” food is far superior in every way.
If you are seeking to become fitter and healthier in your 40s, this knowledge, plus the practical, easy to implement steps in our guide for dads, are your first steps to reclaiming your health and fitness. So what are you waiting for?