The 18 Processed Foods We Eat and Why: Part 1

The vast majority of processed foods are detrimental to our health. I’ve talked about this before. The lack of conscience in the food industry is shameful. It makes banking (my old profession) look like a social enterprise. But food processing is not necessarily bad. It’s all a matter of degree. Some processed foods remain close enough to their whole food counterparts to earn a place in a healthy diet. They combine quality and convenience. There are even some forms of processing that increase the health properties of certain foods. So, yes, we have processed foods in our house. Eighteen to be exact. Here I cover the first eight.

(Genuine) Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

To say we use this as a garnish on food is to downplay its importance. At the very least it’s a side dish. The side dish. With every meal. Why? Firstly, it tastes incredible. And secondly, it’s super healthy. There is no debate about this. There is about other fats, but not about extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). Effectively the juice from squeezing freshly harvested olives, EVOO is mainly Oleic Acid, a monounsaturated fat. This makes it quite resistant to damage from oxidation. But it’s the polyphenols that make it a health food. Polyphenols are a group of plant chemicals that are able to neutralise free-radicals. They are – buzz word alert! – antioxidants. They have been shown to offer protection against heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimers. They also protect the oil itself from oxidation, which means you can cook with it, even at high temperatures. There is, however, one problem. And it’s a biggie. The olive oil industry is rife with fraud. Most of the “extra-virgin” olive oil on the supermarket shelves is not actually extra-virgin. At best, it’s a lower grade olive oil, extracted with heat or chemicals. At worst, it’s ground nut oil or something similar, flavoured and coloured to appear like EVOO. Either way, it’s distinctly less healthy. Harmful even. As ever with food, the closer you can get to the source, the better. We buy ours directly from a small producer in Tuscany. It’s genuine. And delicious.

Raw Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil

Healthy, versatile, and the perfect cooking oil. We use it abundantly for frying, roasting and baking. Katie has it in her coffee. Gabriel has it in his homemade formula milk, and gets massaged with it daily. I eat it by the spoonful, and even use it as mouthwash. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat. We need saturated fat. It’s the main constituent of brain and bone marrow tissue, carries high concentrations of fat soluble vitamins, and provides the lubrication for our lungs. Contrary to popular myths, dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are not the causes of heart disease. The saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a very efficient source of energy for our cells. It’s also mildly anti-microbial. And tastes delicious. Try roasting sweet potato or parsnip chips in large quantities of coconut oil. You’ll never want French fries again. I have sampled more than a dozen brands. The best? Lucy Bee’s.

Dark (Proper) Chocolate

The treat du jour at our place. Tous les jour. Good quality dark chocolate ticks so many boxes. It’s dairy-free, low in sugar, and packed with polyphenols (those antioxidants again). It also contains a stimulant called theobromine, which is a similar compound to caffeine. Oh, and it’s bloody tasty. Our favourite mainstream brand is Montezuma’s. But Lindt and Green & Blacks are both pretty good. We avoid anything with ingredients other than cacao, sugar, and a natural flavour (like vanilla). Soya lecithin is used as an emulsifier by most manufacturers. Not good (it’s invariably genetically modified). We tend to stick in the 85%-90% cacao range, but like a bit of 100% cacao for an intense, guilt-free experience. If we’re feeling really rebellious, a 70% cacao bar might appear from the fridge. We’ve recently discovered a new premium brand called Ombar. They use raw cacao (more polyphenols), and some interesting flavours.

Smoked (Wild-Caught) Fish

While not an everyday staple, we usually have a stock of wild smoked salmon and mackerel in the freezer for when fresh options run dry. I have the salmon for breakfast a couple of times a week, and mackerel makes an attractive (if only occasional) partner to the salad in our lunch boxes. Smoked fish is lightly processed and is a convenient way to load up on Omega-3 fats. That said, the wood smoke brings with it some potentially carcinogenic chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), so we tend to limit consumption. Sainsbury’s stocks the best wild smoked salmon, and also has a nice own-brand smoked mackerel.

Parma Ham

Emergency breakfast, lunch on the go, or decedent snack. Our fridge is well stocked with Parma ham. It’s not our first choice of meat, of course, but it’s the best processed meat out there. The production of Parma ham is carefully controlled by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma. The pigs are specially selected and raised to specific standards. The only ingredients are “Italian pigs, salt, air and time”. Most other cured meats include colours and preservatives like nitrates and nitrites. There is some evidence that these chemicals are carcinogenic to humans. So, we avoid them. Parma ham is the only processed meat we eat with any regularity. All supermarkets seem to sell it.

Canned Fish

When we’re out of other options, we fall back on canned fish for a decent lunch. Tuna, wild salmon, mackerel and sardines are all pretty good. There is a big drawback here though. Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in the plastic lining of the tins. BPA was originally developed as a synthetic form of oestrogen, but has been used in hard plastics and epoxy resins since the 50’s. It mimics or blocks the action of oestrogen, interfering in the biological pathways in which oestrogen is involved (there are a lot). There is a growing body of evidence showing the serious adverse health effects of BPA exposure but, as always, the regulatory authorities have been slow to catch up (lobbying from the plastics industry is fierce!). BPA-free cans are out there but hard to come by in the UK. We limit our exposure by only turning to canned food in an emergency. I like the Wild Planet brand but it’s a challenge to get hold of.

Nakd Bars

Quite literally a godsend. Convenient, delicious, and as close to whole foods as processed snacks get. Monty loves them, and so does his Mum. Even I grab one from time to time. And we’re not the only ones. Nakd bars have become popular. Mainstream. So much so that most supermarkets display them at the checkout (they’re responding to customer demand here, not trying to improve the health of the nation!). I’m not convinced about some of the newer flavours – the ingredients seem to be increasing in number and becoming more opaque – but the originals are great. The Cashew Cookie Bar (just dates and cashews) and Pecan Pie Bar (just dates, pecans and almonds) are our favourites.

Sauerkraut

A great example of food made better by processing. Fermentation turns regular white cabbage into a tasty probiotic supplement. The brine kills harmful bacteria and allows various lactic acid bacteria to get settled in and grow. These bacteria are the “friendly” type, essential to our gut health and immune function. The lactic acid they produce creates the lovely sour flavour in the ‘kraut. I usually have a pile of it with my breakfast, and it appears in our lunch boxes frequently. We like The Cultured Food Company.

In Part 2, we’ll look at grains, milks and sweeteners.

Own your health.

– James.

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