Food is food? Right?

Well, it's the quality that matters. As they say, junk in equals junk out.

Today, all types of impossible foods exist because of processing. We can turn one food into another, completely unrelated food. Vegan cheeses and meats are one kind of impossible food that’s come into existence because of processing.

But is it healthy? Just because it's food doesn't mean it's healthy. Processing can involve everything from simply washing off dirt and debris to grinding up, overcooking, chemical flavorings, and mashing things up into ways unthought-of by nature.

Let's look a little bit more into this.


Types of Processing Foods

Unprocessed Foods

At the bottom (or top, depending on your point of view) of the processing ladder is unprocessed foods. Think of picking vegetables out of your garden or picking something up at the farmer's market. They're still a little dirty, fresh off the vine, and have had nothing done to them. You have to do all the washing and prepping at home.

When it comes to health, these are the healthiest types of food, and you want a lot of them in your diet.

Examples: any fruits and vegetables straight off the plant

Minimally Processed Foods

The next step is to minimally processed foods. Minimal processing means very little is done to alter the structure, flavor, texture, or nutrition of the food. Think of the fruits and vegetables in the grocery store. They’re usually washed, put into bags, but rarely cut up, cooked, or changed.

Many nutritionists put frozen foods into this category, as well. Most of the time, frozen foods consist of fruits and vegetables that have been picked, cut into bite-size pieces, and flash frozen. Most of the nutrients are preserved, as is flavor, and sometimes texture.

When cooking for several people or pressed for time, choosing frozen vegetables is more time and money-saving option. It’s better to use pre-washed, pre-sliced, frozen carrots than to wash, chop, and cook from scratch if you don’t have the time. And, we know it’s a whole lot easier to call for a pizza than forcing yourself to do that extra work when you don’t have the energy.

If you can't get straight off the vine fruits and vegetables, this is your best choice. Choose whole fruits and vegetables, or unflavored frozen vegetables. You want a lot of these types of vegetables in your diet. 

Examples: fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, plain frozen vegetables, dried whole grain rice and beans, whole cuts of meat

Processed Foods

Processing changes many things about fruits and vegetables. Most of the time, it severely degrades the amount of nutrition, flavor, texture, and/or enjoyment. Many of the food processes go through washing, cutting up, heating to destroy bacteria (pasteurization), and adding chemical preservatives.

Most of these products will have already been cooked once before reaching you. Because you cook it a second time, you lose even more of the nutrition. You'll often find chemical flavors added to these processed foods to enhance the flavor.

You need to read the ingredient label to know what you are really eating. You shouldn’t be getting many of these in your diet.

Examples: Canned fruits and vegetables, ready to make meals, instant rice, white rice, baked bread, cookies, candies, chips, milk, cheese

Ultra Processed Foods

The final category and the worst is ultra-processed foods. These over-processed food-like products basically turned one type of food into another. 

An example is vegan meats and cheeses. Since vegans not eat anything that comes from the flesh of an animal, they will not eat real meat or cheese. So, to indulge the desire for these types of foods, manufactured food companies take fruits and vegetables and create substitutes. 

The process involved in creating these fake meats means grinding the fruit and vegetables into a paste, adding flavors, chemicals, emulsifiers, binders, and anything else to help this is mushy paste resemble real food. In the end, you could have an ingredient list of 15 to 30 ingredients long, mostly filled with chemicals.

Food concentrate supplements also fall into this category. Protein bars and powders have various extracts, binders, and all sorts of chemical ingredients added to create something vaguely appetizing.

But, these are food-like products – not actual food. A healthy diet does not include these types of food.

Examples: vegan meat and cheese, protein bars, protein powders

What Happens When You Eat Processed & Ultra Processed Foods

Your digestive system had many thousands of years to adjust to eating certain types of fruits, vegetables, and meat. For most of human existence, this was all that was available.

Even bread, which is technically a processed food, was quite wholesome because it was fermented and made of whole food ingredients (sourdough bread).

It's only been in the past hundred years that we've begun to change our food and start processing it in ways nature never intended.

A Confused Digestive System

Our digestive system works by producing enzymes, acids, and bile that breaks down whole foods – basically all fruits, vegetables, and meats. We have no way of processing chemicals. So, our digestive system gets confused.

Foods that are processed or over-processed breakdown either too quickly or not at all. Most people know bread turns to almost nothing if you chew it for more than 10 seconds. And most people have seen the video of ramen noodles not breaking down in the digestive system at all!

In either case, it wreaks havoc on our natural digestive juices. For example, if you eat a lot of processed foods that contain wheat products, like cookies and frozen dinners, it can irritate your stomach to the point you're not producing enough stomach acid. Without enough stomach acid, you can’t digest food, and that can lead to food being regurgitated back into the esophagus, diverticulitis, bloating, and poor nutrient absorption. 

Sometimes, IBS, acid reflux, and GERD are caused by abuse to the stomach and its inability to produce enough acid. If you want to learn more about this and a diet that will help, talk to one of our coaches here at Custom Health Centers.

Injured Organs

Those chemicals and preservatives in the food can hurt your digestive system, but it's what they do beyond that you have to worry about. Many of these chemicals can get absorbed into your bloodstream, which puts an extra burden on our liver and kidneys to detoxify them. Some preservatives are linked to ADHD symptoms, and some are known to trigger heart problems. 

Hormone Disruption

Some of the chemicals in processed food are known as endocrine disruptors. Our endocrine system governs our hormones, like serotonin, dopamine, estrogen, and testosterone. They can also affect our thyroid, which affects our metabolism. Some chemicals increase the stress hormone cortisol, which causes weight gain, and others can cause low testosterone leading to a reduced sex drive.


And they can cause you to gain weight. Two of those hormones they disrupt are known as ghrelin and leptin. These two hormones control our desire to feel hungry and full. If you throw them off, it can cause you to want to eat without stopping. Additionally, some of the chemicals actually repressed leptin, the hormone that says were full, so we don’t know we’ve eaten enough food until our stomach has expanded to the point of us being bloated and ready to explode!

Overall, you want to keep your food as unprocessed as possible. If you do to choose processed foods, be sure to read the food labels and check out the ingredients. 

Can you pronounce all of the ingredients? Do you know what they all do? And above all else, ask yourself, if you were making this at home, could you buy all the ingredients in that processed food? If not, how dangerous do you think that chemical is, and should you be putting it in your body?

Do you want to eat food that is a product, or do you want real food that helps you be healthy and keep the weight off? 

February 08, 2021 — Dr. Jason Olafsson