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Processed Food. Let’s Discuss.

It’s all about balance and how you prepare your food.

The 2020 version of our world is helping us (making us?) rethink what we are doing and how we approach many things. At the same time, it sometimes feels like we’re running around like squirrels looking for nuts before winter as we try to navigate our way through the unknown.

Enter the discussion of “processed food”.

I was on a call recently listening to the results of a survey about what people eat and how they think about food. “Processed foods” were part of the survey.

It got me thinking…What do people think “processed” means?

Funny you should ask. 😉 Was it defined in the question? Did the survey respondents explain how they think about “processed”? I posted a similar query on LinkedIn, and someone commented about assumptions. It’s interesting to consider that what we think something means is what we assume other people think, too. What if it’s not? What if an assumption is made with potential huge impact on lots of people (and it’s not quite right)?

What if it’s about research studies looking at direct health impact of foods? Don’t we want to know EXACTLY what was studied? If we base it on assumptions, look out. We may make recommendations that need to be reversed in the future because we assumed instead of knowing what foods were actually included in the study. Woopsies.

What if it’s about setting food guidance for people with serious health conditions? Don’t we want to know EXACTLY what to suggest? If we base this on assumptions, look out. We may ask people to do – or not do – something that has no bearing – or negative impact – on health status. Yikes.

You see, to get into the “processed” discussion and actually have it matter, we must consider people and what they will do about words that they hear. It’s not about selling stuff or just talking. This could have direct impact on a person’s health.

So back to the whole assumption thing. Granted, many people, when they hear the word “processed”, probably assume the discussion is about what many commonly call “junk food”, but that’s a whole other story. The point is, we can probably agree that there are some foods that aren’t very nutritious for the calories they provide.

This is not the same as “processed”.

Why does this matter? Because programs, products, and direction on how to take care of ourselves are using words sometimes in a way that might be providing confusion when help is what is intended. Woops.

Everyone has their own personal/religious/cultural reasons for eating what they do. What does “healthy” even mean? I won’t get into the FDA definition, or in regards to describing our lifestyle, or in relation to specific foods, or a global perspective from farm to table….

Some people are managing medical conditions, from arthritis to Zika, some of which are directly impacted by food choice.

Image by sdfgh sdfg from Pixabay 

Then of course, there is food budget (including managing food waste), time/convenience, cooking skills, and the list goes on about what we all have on our minds when it comes to food, from value (nutrients for money spent) to values (does this food choice showcase what I feel is important?).

So. Many. Things.

Picture the following scenarios:

Someone on a tight budget (especially now, with job loss and the world situation as it is)

Someone trying to minimize the number of trips to the store per month as suggested

Someone providing for a family while holding two jobs

Someone who is an executive with an incredibly demanding job living alone

Someone out of college who doesn’t know how to cook

Someone who is elderly and facing medical conditions that reduce their ability to cook

Someone who is in great health and wants to stay that way

Someone who enjoys many foods and opts for different forms depending on schedule, sales, time for meal prep, and so forth

All of these people can benefit from a variety of food choice that includes fresh, dried, canned, frozen, and 100% juice. None of these people should feel bad for choosing a can of beans over dried, or prepared cereal with milk for a quick breakfast that offers two food groups for balance.

BUT…when someone talks about the form of a food over the preparation and balanced meal approach of incorporating foods, it’s sort of missing the point. That’s why this matters.

I use ready to eat (or close to ready to eat) versions of many foods. I used to travel a ton. I have a small household. I like to maximize my trips to the grocery store. I like to manage food waste and enjoy putting meals together that don’t always take days to prepare. This means processed foods can be a sous chef of sorts for me in the kitchen. Same is true for you.

A word from the USDA about “processed“:

“A processed food item is defined as a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change in the character of the covered commodity, or that has been combined with at least one other covered commodity or other substantive food component. Specific processing that results in a change in the character of the covered commodity includes cooking (e.g., frying, broiling, grilling, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting), curing (e.g., salt curing, sugar curing, drying), smoking (hot or cold), and restructuring (e.g., emulsifying and extruding).

…”Trimming, cutting, chopping, and slicing are activities that do not change the character of the product. Likewise, preparation steps for fruits, vegetables, and nuts such as blanching (steam or oil), dicing, removal of seed (pit, stem, calyx, husk, pods, rind, skin, peel, etc.), polishing, waxing, adding sugar, and adding ascorbic acid (to retard oxidation) do not change the character of the covered commodity into a processed food item”…

…”The addition of a component (such as water, salt, or sugar) that enhances or adds an additional step in the preparation of the product would not in itself result in a processed food item. These additional steps do not fundamentally alter the name or use of the product by the consumer…”


Here’s the thing: we can combine different forms of foods to balance out the meal prep time, nutrition, and taste of the overall meal or snack. We can recognize that there are some foods we eat purely for the fun of it (I call these party foods) and there are some foods that we eat because of the memories attached (a family recipe, a favorite restaurant meal on an anniversary, etc.)

Pandemic or not, it’s time to pivot. Instead of what NOT to do, how about we focus on informed choices?

It’s not about fooling ourselves or anyone else.

It’s about clear communication, celebration of the abundant, amazing choices that we have, and getting in the nutrition we need to support our health (and for you buzz word types, this means our immune system, too).

We can have fun AND take care of ourselves. It all starts with a little more clarity on what we actually mean. The goal: make sure other people know what we mean while we make sure we know what they mean. You know what I mean?

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.