Processed food gets a bad rep. So-called ‘ultraprocessed food’ gets an even worse one. To say that we don’t need to eliminate these foods is an unpopular opinion. So, naturally, I’m going to share my thoughts on it.
There is no current definition on what amount of processing makes a food ‘ultraprocessed’. At what point does a food move from the ‘processed’ to ‘ultraprocessed’ category? Ask anyone and you’ll likely get a different answer. And because there’s no official agreed-upon definition, it’s often used to mean ‘mass-produced’, ‘factory-made’, ‘low-cost’ or ‘low class’. It’s certainly not ‘posh’ food.
But what about ‘wellness’ brands? Your favourite energy balls, raw crackers, and nut butters from health food stores are also mass-produced and made in factories. Yet because they’re expensive and ‘wellness’ we wouldn’t dream of calling these ‘ultra-processed’. The same bloggers who preach homemade food and eating as close to ‘natural’ as possible, now either sell their own (factory-made) products, or are happy to promote them on their social media channels. Now obviously I’m not saying there’s something wrong with eating these foods, but what really makes them different from non-wellness products other than marketing and cost?
And more importantly, what about those who can’t afford to make all their food from scratch, or who don’t have time? Do we vilify these people and shame them for their food choices, when in fact they don’t really HAVE a choice? We rise in righteous indignation that anyone would even consider microwaving a ready meal instead of chopping 4 different vegetables, even if they’ve just worked a 12-hour shift on their feet and have three hungry mouths to feed.
Eating a ready meal doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person, just as eating a meal cooked from scratch doesn’t make you a fucking saint. Obviously, as a nutritionist I totally understand that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and so-called ‘unprocessed foods’ is great for overall good health, but I’m also aware that one frozen ready meal isn’t going to give someone a heart attack. I eat processed foods every day: canned beans, ready-cooked lentils, shop-bought hummus and pesto, sliced bread (the horror) …and those are just the ones I eat pretty much daily.
Equating ‘processed’ with ‘unhealthy’ is also not quite accurate. One of the arguably heathiest things you consume on a daily basis is the most processed: water. Yep, water. The water that comes out of your tap is heavily processed to remove any harmful bacteria (no one wants dysentery), sediment, and other impurities. If it wasn’t processed, you’d be either dead or incredibly unwell right now.
How is using vague words like ‘ultraprocessed’, ‘junk’, ‘fake’, ‘nasties’ and inducing shame beneficial to anyone? Shaming people into making healthier food choices doesn’t work, especially when they eat the way they do due to circumstances out of their control. It doesn’t make them feel better, it just adds extra stress to people’s already stressful lives. Surely there must be a more positive way to go about this?
Let’s be realistic, no one food is going to be the cause of our undoing and plunge us into a pit of ill health. Nutrition is far too complex for that. All foods can be part of a healthy balanced diet, and using dichotomous language to describe food that, in reality, exists on a wide spectrum of processing, isn’t particularly helpful. Yes, let’s encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables where possible, but cutting out ‘processed’ foods is pretty unrealistic (unless you want to chain yourself to a kitchen all day) and elitist. Moderation not elimination. I’m gonna keep saying it until the message sticks.