Thursday, March 27, 2014

What is processed food? And what's in a definition?

One food choice that I make, and that many people I know make, is to limit the amount of processed food we eat.

But what, exactly, is processed food?

Maybe you think the answer to that question is pretty straightforward.  Here's one of many things that made me think a little deeper:

What's that just above the USDA organic seal?  "Processed in the USA."

Processed?  Wait, when did plain spinach leaves become processed food?

The Oxford Dictionary defines to process as:
"Perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it."

My baby spinach has been changed and preserved.  The little roots on the bottoms of the leaves were removed.  It was triple washed, so some mechanical operation was used to wash away the dirt.  Then it was dried so it wouldn't get moldy, and packaged in a recycled plastic container.

By definition baby spinach is processed food.  So are dried lentils and beans, oatmeal, and rice.  So is flour- even my home milled flour is processed in the Vitamix at home, and is made from wheat berries which were milled in a factory!

When I say I'm trying to avoid processed food, stuff like brown rice, lentils, and baby spinach is not what I mean.  There's a problem with my definition of processed food.

I used to think that philosophy was just a waste of time, messing around with the meanings of words.  But after the first few years of my foray into studying philosophy, I learned that defining terms is just the first step in this practical and very useful art.  But no wonder I noticed all the defining that goes on in philosophy- definition is an absolutely crucial first step!

Having an accurate definition is critical to any productive discussion- or any productive thinking!   Before determining a clear definition of processed food, I was not even able to recognize a processed food when I ate one!  When I say I want to avoid all processed foods, I'm not being specific about what I want to avoid or why.  Without a clear working definition of what I do and do not want to include in my diet, how can I make good choices?

Processed foods aren't all evil.  Foods are processed to preserve their freshness and nutrients, processed to improve their palatability, processed to improve their usability and convenience.  There's a huge spectrum of ways these goals can be achieved, and how a food is processed is far more important that the fact that it was processed.  Was freshness achieved by sealing food in an airtight container, or by the use of chemical additives that make me uncomfortable?  Was palatability achieved by finely grinding or dehydrating a food, or was it achieved by dumping in a bunch of sugar and salt?  Is the trade-off of nutrition for convenience worth buying flour that was milled at a factory instead of freshly milling my flour at home?  How do I feel about prepared foods?   What are the impact of costs?  Does it matter whether food is processed in my home or in a factory- if so, why and in what cases?  What is the impact of different types of packaging on human health?  And what is the impact on the environment of different types of processing and packaging?

My questions about how food is processed won't be exactly the same as yours.  Different people will have different values, and have different needs when caring for themselves and their families.  But in order to make decisions that best serve our needs and best reflect our values, everyone needs understand what processed foods are, how they are processed, and where they are processed, in order to decide which processed foods they want to include in a healthy lifestyle.

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