Fear of processed and formulated foods

Google alerts me about the latest links to “processed food” every morning, generally ranging from 3-8 articles on the topic.  Almost every day, I read at least one article that urges me to “avoid processed foods.” Such a warning, if followed, promises to help me escape all the chronic illnesses of modern society, it would seem, from Alzheimer’s to tinnitus and every one in between. The problem is Western Society and the diseases associated with the Western Diet1. By following a few simple rules, we can avoid all the problems of our decadent civilization and be on the path to good health. Most of these prescriptions have us eating fresh fruits and vegetables, with a diet that is primarily plant based. The problem is that there are lots of other rules to follow that are in direct contradiction with each other. The successful eater will need to choose from a myriad of different solutions. But just what do these  authors mean by  processed foods?

In the ultimate book of Food Rules2, Michael Pollan endorses the idea of fewer ingredients and ones with pronounceable names. The secret message here is to avoid foods with added chemicals. Another perspective describes processed foods as those that have been altered from their natural state. In this context essentially any product or ingredient found in a package could be considered a processed food.  Some authorities make the distinction between lightly and heavily processed products.

Food scientists think of food processing as a series of steps that takes one or more raw materials to form it into a finished product. These steps are called unit operations. Traditional operations include canning, freezing and drying which are now primarily conducted in food processing plants but were frequently performed at home by my parent’s and grandparent’s generations. Older technology such as fermenting into alcoholic or acidic foods and curing with salt or sugar have been part of the foodscapes for thousands of years. More advanced technical operations include high-pressure processing (HPP), irradiation and Ohmic heating—all of which tend to be gentler methods on the nutrients present in the raw material than the more traditional methods. Curious about HPP? Anyone who has bought and eaten guacamole, hummus or pesto sauce recently from the refrigerated section of the supermarket has probably benefited from HPP.


Two products manufactured by high pressure processing (HPP).

Apparently, the processed foods that most commentators are concerned about are what food scientists call formulated foods. These are the foods with more than the permitted five ingredients. A formulation is a scientific form of a recipe. Every ingredient is included to perform a specific function. Some ingredients are added to improve color or flavor of a product. Others many serve to thicken the product to keep it from being watery.  Preservatives help keep a food safe and slow natural rotting. It is not clear why the limit is five ingredients, but the suspicion may be that the more ingredients present, the more chance an unsafe one could be added. The five-ingredient rule apparently does not apply to home-cooked meals as most recipes in books advocating healthy eating3,4,5 and suspicious of processed food call for more than five in most recipes. One reason to given to avoid processed (formulated) foods is that they are all high in sugar and salt. That is not necessarily the case, however.


The product on the left is processed but not formulated, while the one on the right is a formulated food.

Many formulated foods as well as many home-cooked items are high in sugar and salt. These foods should be eaten sparingly. Many other formulated and home-cooked foods with more than five ingredients are not nearly as high in sugar and salt. With formulated foods we can see how much sugar and salt are present per serving on the NUTRITION FACTS part of the product label. Most home recipes do not provide similar information. The idea that home cooking is somehow superior to formulated products “because you know how much salt you are getting” is misleading. I know of no cook, myself included, who knows how much salt in mg or sugar in grams they are adding per serving relative to a similar product off the shelf.

coffee label rev.png

This formulated food contains 47 grams (12 teaspoons) of added sugar.

The other knock on formulated foods is that too many of the ingredients are chemicals. Somehow it strikes me odd that many writers suspicious of technology when applied to food use the internet to express their technological reservations. The idea that food is not chemical in nature, but that ingredients with chemical names are dangerous is disheartening. As mentioned in my last posting, everything we put into our mouth is chemical and we are all chemically dependent. The fearmongering about the dangers of chemicals in foods is either deliberately misleading or unfortunately misguided. In most articles discussing chemicals in foods, the term is used as a negative attribute. When forced to describe a beneficial chemical, molecule is generally used by authors instead of chemical.

This blog site and the book6 it is based on are not advocating a diet based on processed food alone whether the definition encompasses the narrow perspective of formulated foods or a broader perspective. Rather it advocates the idea of rational eating. What we eat should be based on the actual content of a food itself and not stereotyping. I advocate a mindful eating approach instead of a mindless7 one. Many recommended diets are extremes and may do more damage in the long-run than ones recommended by nutritionists and dieticians such as the DASH and Mediterranean diets. The theme of next month’s series of blogs will be rational eating.

Next week: Review of The Secret Life of Fat


Click on anyof the titles below to get order information from amazon.com

1 Trowell, H.C. and D.P. Burkitt, 1981. Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention,Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2 Pollan, M., 2009, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manifesto, New York: Penguin Books

3 Sacks, S., 2014, What the Fork are You Eating?: An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate, 2014, New York: Penguin Group.

4 Hari, V., 2015, The Food-Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days, 2015, New York: Little, Brown and Company

5 Whiteson, J. 2002, Get a Real Food Life: Janine Whiteson’s Revolutionary 8-Week Food Makeover, Emmaus PA: Rodale

6 Shewfelt. R.L., 2017. In Defense of Processed Food: It’s Not Nearly as Bad as You Think, Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus

7 Wansink, B., 2007, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, New York: Bantam

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