Monday, May 3, 2010

Processed foods: The good, bad and ugly

Most foods are "processed" at some point. For example, if you slice an apple, you have "processed" it. If you cook rice, make a salad or bake salmon, you have by definition transformed them from unprocessed to processed foods.

People talk about "processed foods," but it's a confusing term because some processing is good and necessary, and some is bad and unnecessary.

The Spartan Diet draws a very sharp distinction between foods processed for eating on the one hand, and those processed for preservation on the other. Although the Spartan Diet is made up almost entirely of raw, whole, unprocessed foods -- at least when you buy or pick them -- foods that have been processed for eating are on the diet. Olive oil, for example, has been processed. The oil has been extracted from olives, and that's a process -- and a necessary one if you want olive oil. However, it has not been processed for preservation. Good olive oil hasn't been pasteurized, irradiated, or subjected to any process to give it shelf life. Olive oil stays good for months on its own, if properly handled, so no such intervention is necessary. High-quality, organic extra-virgin olive oil is a processed food. But because the processing isn't for preservation, it's OK.

Here's the problem: Food decays. As soon as an animal has been killed, or a plant food has been removed from the plant or soil, it begins a process of decline. Some foods, such as grains, stay perfectly good for years. Some fruits can last days or weeks after being picked. Others, such as lettuce, decline in hours.

As foods decay, the taste, smell, and appearance are transformed. As a survival mechanism, we are hard-wired to be attracted to fresh foods and repulsed by old foods. Nature is looking out for us. Our preference for fresh foods is designed to keep us healthy.

In order to manage the mass distribution of food cost effectively by reducing spoilage, and to make seasonal foods available for sale all year, people have come up with processes that slow or hide this decay. Food preservation is all about hiding the age of food, and tricking human instinct into accepting old food as fresh.

In ancient times, people salted and dried foods for preservation. These processes are still used, but we also have more modern methods that include canning, pickling, irradiation, pasteurization and many others. (Food companies also use food additives to preserve and improve the appearance of old food, but this post is about understanding processed foods, rather than food additives.)

Just about every food or drink that comes in a bottle, can, carton, box, bag or plastic container has been processed for preservation. And because of this processing, which universally degrades nutritional and gastronomic quality, these foods are not on the Spartan Diet. (One notable exception is frozen foods, which are generally good enough if fresh versions are unavailable.)

Most food preservation methods are products of advancing science, technology and infrastructure improvements. But in the last few decades, our civilization has advanced to the point where we can eat fresh foods every day, and never eat foods that have been processed for preservation. A historically unprecedented variety of fresh, whole, raw un-adulterated foods are easily available to the vast majority of people in the industrialized world.

People still buy foods processed for preservation, largely because they are far more aggressively marketed (the processing and additives turn them into a branded product) and because they can appear to be cheaper. But they're not necessary. And avoiding all such processed foods, and eating a diet of fresh foods, you can enjoy much better health -- and far better tasting meals.

Spartan Diet foods are simply foods of the highest quality. Foods that have been processed for the purpose of making old food look fresh just aren't good enough.