Processed food has some big problems. Everyone likes to isolate particular things: fat, sugar, salt. Rarely have I heard a concise explanation of why it is bad. Never have I read a good business explanation of why processed food flourishes in a market environment. Diabetes and obesity related diseases are already out of control. As a larger percentage of the global population moves to cities this will only become worse.
Why is processed food bad?
There are two pieces to this. One is based on hard nutritional science, the other is less definite but likely. It is important to separate the two as to not fall in to the chasm of psuedo-science which dominates much of popular food culture.
Processed food requires one, two, or three of the following ingredients to remain palatable: fat, processed sugar, or salt. Excess salt causes high blood pressure, processed sugar as ultra-refined carbohydrate will contribute to instant weight gain (this is why you have a sugar high and then a hard crash, your body rapidly stores the calories as fat rather than burning them off slowly from something unprocessed such as a steak.) The added fat is more controversial. What we know for certain is that if your arteries are inflamed, fat will accumulate as plaques, harden, and cause lasting damage and eventually heart disease. Together the three are the perfect recipe for gaining weight and getting sick (sodium through water retention.)
The three are mixed and matched. The dirty secret is “Low Fat” = even higher salt or sugar. The converse may be true with “Low Sodium.” We don’t see much “Low Sugar” because of artificial sweeteners like aspartame. If you take something, such as that bag of potato chips, and remove the salt and added fat its going to taste like crap. Its that simple. One would be very challenged to produce a processed food product lacking these ingredients. There is an added effect which I will cover below in the business of processed food.
The second part is less known: its about what processed food contains and what it doesn’t. Processed foods have all kinds of added chemicals which are safe for human consumption in small amounts. Some have to do with flavor, others are there so that your candy part sticks together, your beer doesn’t become too frothy, and so on. Those weird chemicals, ironically, are there so you don’t say “gross!” when you look at packaged food.
But here is the kicker: unprocessed foods contain a lot of things we don’t know quite as much about. Nutrients, anti-nutrients, oxidants, anti-oxidants. What a head of cabbage, mushroom, or raw salmon are made out of is totally different than a potato chip or hamburger bun. To date there is minimal evidence you can just take a bunch of pills with these known and unknown ingredients in them. Certainly, a refined pill will not replicate the process that occurs in digesting whole, unprocessed food and the benefits to gut bacteria.
Why we keep buying it (and how to cash in)
A (semi) capitalist marketplace creates a large number of incentives for some things while also adding disincentive others. Some are totally uncontrolled facts of reality, others can be adjusted through marketing (tricking woman in to smoking cigarettes by piggybacking on the suffrage movement.) When a businessman is able to correctly balance the uncontrollable while influencing the controllables they get rich.
Here are a few facts:
All of the major food companies in the world operate almost entirely in this framework. Diverging even a small amount can remove scalability and ultimately profits. Coca-Cola, Pepsi-cola, Starbucks, Kraft, Nabisco, Frito-Lay, and others have all created and dispersed vast fortunes exploiting these incredibly damaging weaknesses.
There are alternatives, and we can see them a little in big cities. However, they are expensive and mostly only benefit the wealthy.
A little practical advice
It is possible to break from processed food, assuming a few things. I have successfully helped friends by having them follow in steps:
First, remove all drinks containing calories
Liquid calories alone can take a person from normal to overweight. At the very least you should drop about 10 pounds. Secondly, this is going to help alter your taste buds reaction to sweet foods. I suggest drinking water, a light green tea, and black coffee. Keep note of your dairy and consequently calcium consumption. This is the primary problem with cutting milk consumption (not ok for developing children.)
This first step is a stopping point for a large portion of people due to alcohol consumption. Sorry, your body has to make a profound shift and slamming it with high glycemic carbohydrates = you will not pass go.
Increase your consumption of unprocessed protein
You can sit on a sofa all day eating chips and candy. This is impossible with steak. Carbs tell your body “eat more” while protein says “stop!” When observing the diets of morbidly obese people protein calories make up a tiny percentage. Fish tops out the list as healthy (watch mercury intake), followed up by lean cuts of turkey, chicken, pork, grass fed beef, and veal. Eggs are great too.
Imagine a dieting approach that tells you to eat something rather than restrict consumption? Let your body do it for you. (On a very serious note the correlation between pain killer prescriptions and US state obesity rates makes me suspect there can be signal interference with various narcotics.)
Increase consumption of bitter foods
Do it slowly. Drink more bitter green tea. Increase consumption of lettuce and broccoli. If you are also drinking a soda a day this won’t work. Your taste buds will make big changes. Soon you will notice fruits like bananas taste great while adding sugar to coffee is repulsive.
Purge all processed food from the house
An absolutely critical step. If you don’t do this, you will fail.
Focus on quality
For long term success you must be obsessed with food quality. You must have access to large volumes of high quality fresh produce because this is what you will be eating. Find the nearest farmer’s market. Figure out how to buy food multiple times a week instead of once. Work on cooking yourself. With a tiny amount of work you can match much of what you would be served at a one Michelin star restaurant. I suggest “The Four Hour Chef” for starters.