The world of processed food and pre-packaged diets

April 23, 2012

I often forget what certain kinds of food are supposed to taste like and only when in the presence of real food does my memory rekindle. At those rare times when I am fortunate enough to visit a friend’s cottage and have the opportunity to meet with some of the local farmers, only then do I remember what real fruit tastes like. Have you ever tried fresh homemade jam (and no… Smucker’s Jam does not count)? Have you ever tasted granola that was not from a box or bar? All I’m trying to say is this: food nowadays leaves much to be desired.

The world of processed food and pre-packaged diets

We live in a processed world – everything from information, to electronics to food has been streamlined to a terrifying extent. Information passes through dozens upon dozens of filtration channels before it eventually makes its way into a textbook or news article. Food, likewise, experiences this same process.

Now, I am no biologist, but I do know enough about science to know that when you can’t pronounce over half of the ingredients on the back of the box, there’s a serious problem. Some of the listed chemicals are preservatives, some are flavour enhancers and some are there just for the fun of it. Pre-packaged food is riddled with artificial ingredients that may be doing more harm than we think. Our bodies are not biologically programmed to process all of these artificial chemicals. But don’t take me for a crazy “science is EVIL” anarchist. Many of the chemicals in our food are harmless in small enough doses. I just believe that the main constituents of our food should be the food itself.

Let’s use a Quaker Chocolate Chip Chewy Granola Bar as an example. What ingredients would one expect to find in such a food? My guess would be granola and oats, chocolate chips, flour, rice crisp and sugar. But next time you’re at your local grocery store, read the back of a granola bar box. It’s surprising how small the font is and how many ingredients are stored within that little tasty treat. Soybean oil, caramel colour, soy lecithin and BHT (a preservative) – are these ingredients truly necessary? And on top of that, look at all of the extra sugar that gets dumped into our food: white sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup and molasses – and I don’t even know what invert sugar is!

As human beings grow older, their bodies’ metabolism slows down and their ability to efficiently process foods decreases. The terror commences when a person begins to gain those few extra pounds. In the early ‘80s and onward, a new marketing tactic was employed that completely revolutionized the food industry. The food giants must have come up with the notion that fat makes you fat – solution? Remove all the fat. “Reduced fat” and “fat-free” products very quickly became all the rage. But fats are flavourful – how can food still taste great if the flavour has been removed? Simple: add sugar.

But why, then, were people still gaining weight if the fat was removed? A new idea soon came into play – that evil four letter word that grabs hold of millions of innocent men and women alike: diet. If you’re gaining weight, you must be eating too much – eat less and the pounds will simply walk away! This approach gave birth to thousands of “fad diets” (South Beach anyone?) that ranged anywhere from starving oneself to the consumption of “magic weight loss pills.” But the problem wasn’t that people were eating too much (in the average case), it was that people were just eating the wrong foods.

One of the biggest problems with pre-packaged food today is the high amounts of sugar they contain. The body needs natural sugars, but it doesn’t need to be drowned by them! North Americans consume ridiculously high amounts of sugar on a regular basis and it was not until very recently that nutritionists decided to speak up about their concerns for the layman’s colossal sugar intake. Sugar is energy for the body, but when the body experiences an excess of energy, it stores that energy by converting it into fat. Overindulging on sugar is a vicious circle: we eat a sugar-rich chocolate bar that causes our glycemic levels to spike. Following that spike is the inevitable sugar crash during which one feels the intense craving for more sugar. If one fulfils that craving, the cycle repeats itself.

The world of processed food and pre-packaged diets

On another note, carbs are not the devil – they are a source of energy and our brain needs them to function properly. There are many different types of carbohydrates that can be broken down into two general groups – simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, contain very little nutrition and are converted very quickly and easily by our bodies into sugar. These are the carbs that should be avoided more often than not. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, such as multigrain breads and whole grains, are very healthy for the body and contain many essential minerals and nutrients.

In our modern economy and fast-paced lives, we dedicate very little time to the preparation of healthy food. Who has time to balance a healthy meal of vegetables (half a plate, at least), lean white chicken breast and potatoes? We turn to pre-packaged foods and oily take-out menus for a quick and easy solution to our hunger. Even if you order the healthiest possible food from Pizza Pizza, take a look at the nutritional information on the company’s website – I know right? Pretty scary stuff!

Food today is crap – but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Being a tad more health conscious about the little things can make a huge difference in the long run. Going to Subway? Pass on the cheese. Carbing it up? Skip the rice. Try making your own salad with tuna for lunch instead of buying pizza. Bring fruit for a midday snack and pass on the sugary granola bar. Substitute the white bread on your sandwich for some whole wheat or multigrain bread instead. This doesn’t mean you have to be a masochist or anything, just try being a little more nutritionally aware. You can eat pizza, but just do so occasionally. Are you in the mood for a chocolate bar? Go ahead, but don’t eat one everyday. Most people will wait until they experience some sort of health complication before they decide to make a change to their diet, but I ask you this: why wait for health problems? Why not face trouble and punch it right in the face?