Back in the early 1900s, as more people began to live in cities, the food industry invented preservatives to keep food safe and tasty from farm to plate. This led to increased production and profits for food manufacturers.
It was during the mid 1900s when convenience packaged foods were introduced and later in the 20th century when the health and goodness of foods were reduced to nutrition labels and complicated numbers.
The clean eating trend is a movement away from dependence on processed foods and a renewed focus on eating whole or “real” foods that are as close to their original forms as possible.
So, when is a food considered processed, what's so bad about processed foods, and how can you adopt a cleaner diet?
People think of hot dogs or microwave dinners when they hear of processed foods, but the term encompasses a lot more. Any food that has been changed from its original state to preserve its freshness, safety, and shelf life is considered processed. This includes techniques such as canning, freezing, drying, baking, or pasteurizing. That covers everything from milk and frozen peas to bread, canned tomatoes, and jarred applesauce.
Foods are also considered processed if they have additional ingredients added such as sugar, salt, fat, or artificial preservatives. Examples of this include cereal, canned vegetables, and peanut butter. And processed foods include packaged foods produced with man-made ingredients. Chances are if you can't read or pronounce words on the ingredient list, they're made in a lab.
The answer: yes and no. Many processed foods are safer than the alternative. You don't have to worry if there's bacteria or mold hiding in your jelly or sour cream. They're also more convenient. You can eat frozen berries any time of the year and don't have to plant, water, and harvest them yourself. Processed foods are even tastier or healthier in many instances. The sugars, vitamins, and minerals added to your morning cereal improve their taste and/or health benefits.
However, there are plenty of processed foods at the other end of the spectrum. Eating a diet of processed foods that includes high amounts of sugar, salt, fat, or added preservatives is known to contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Clean eating is about avoiding those highly processed foods and embracing minimally processed foods for health and overall wellness. If this idea makes sense to you but you're not sure how to go about it, here are a few ideas.
It's still okay to eat foods out of a bag or box, but if there's a long list of ingredients on the nutritional label or if there are ingredients you can't pronounce, don't eat it.
One way to eat fewer processed foods is to eat more fruits and vegetables. They're loaded with vitamins and minerals, low in calories, and full of fiber. Choose organic whenever possible or thoroughly wash your produce before eating. Avoid canned vegetables, which can be high in sodium, and look for fruit canned in its own juice rather than heavy syrup.
Eat whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas, and leave the refined grain, white flour, packaged baked goods on the store shelf. Finally, cut back on the amount of saturated fat in your diet by eating less red meat, cheese, mayonnaise, and full-fat dairy.