Are processed foods (ever) healthy?
So, I always was under the impression that all vegans and non vegans alike agreed more or less that non-processed foods were more healthy than processed. I think of the current focus on whole-food (vegan!) diets as the undisputed healthy alternative to all the processed junk that we would consume otherwise. Obviously, there is nothing inherently unhealthy about “processing” food if we consider it to be simply changing the form to make it more palatable (e.g., mashing a boiled potato), but that isn’t usually what falls under the umbrella of the bona fide “processed” foods. Generally, foods are processed such that the raw whole food is altered in some way (either by adding or taking away elements/ingredients, or both) in order to increase shelf life and perhaps make them more appealing to consumers on the market. It is this meddling with the food that often makes something nutritious (potatoes) and turns it into something potentially hazardous to our health, or in the very least, less healthy (tater-tots). Too often, the addition of sugars, sodium, or fats creates a food that should be avoided, for anyone who is even half-serious about their health. It has been quite some time since I read Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”, but from what I remember, in it he advocates for a whole-foods (mostly) plant-based diet as being the healthiest out there. The problem is, I don’t really remember why.
OK, so processed foods being anti-health seems obvious. But last night when someone I had just met started defending them as being a boon to your health (when varied with whole foods), I was caught off-guard. Really? Someone who was vegan actually thinks that enriched white bread is better for your health than whole grain? That vitamin supplements could easily be a substitute for vitamins found in nature? Having just met the young fellow, I had to curb my enthusiasm, but it was hard not to look too bewildered. I almost found it audacious to be making such controversial remarks. How dare he? basically… And the worst part was, I hadn’t much of an argument otherwise. I went on with the most obvious arguments: sodium/sugar/fat/preservatives/man-made chemical content, mother nature getting the nutrient balance just right, so why would you mess with it?, less effective vitamin/nutrient absorption when in supplement form or in enriched foods, etc., but nothing I said seemed to stick in any way for him. It was as if he deemed my opinion invalid before I was given the opportunity to express it.
It was the blatant self-confidence of the bloke that infuriated me the most. When a person has the air of utmost confidence, people tend to forgive the lack of evidence and assume the person intelligent and worthy of following (case in point, Stephen Harper). This teenager had it almost perfected as I watched astounded as other on-listeners nodded their heads in polite recognition, if not approval, of his seemingly superior knowledge regarding the nutritional value of processed foods. Of course, I wanted so badly to expose him as the fraud I thought he was, but I personally lacked the confidence to do so. I am not of the kind who will feign expertise in a particular field when I know full well that I do not have sufficient evidence to back it up. So, I felt helpless. All I could do was recommend that he read “In Defense of Food”, respect his opinion — albeit with clear scepticism — and try to change the subject. Of course when he said he doesn’t read books, he just goes on the Internet to stock his opinion stores, I felt somewhat vindicated and realised, that in truth, I was talking to someone of a younger generation, who perhaps was misguided by his Googling or choice websites.
Though he was far from a social pariah, I did feel that his lack of social graces excused him somewhat for his outlandish claims. I find that people who don’t spend the requisite time getting to know strangers at first before rocketing into some bizarre debate about processed foods actually being healthy for you, have probably more things to worry about than the more widely recognized negative health impact of eating processed foods. I immediately felt pity for him, which in addition to our age difference precluded any possibility of us becoming bosom buddies.
At the end of the day, I had a strange feeling in my chest. I came to the realisation that although I have certain beliefs and I feel confident that I am on the righteous path which is most advantageous for me and those around me, I often lack the ability of persuasion or perhaps lack the skills to truly prove something to be right and just. It’s like knowing that 1 + 1 = 2, but not knowing how to prove it to someone who tells you confidently that it’s just not the case.
In conclusion, I plan to read “In Defense of Food” again, and perhaps other important health and whole food literature, including “Becoming Vegan”. I hope to have conversations with other health conscious individuals who both support and eschew whole food diets and develop a more well-rounded, informed opinion on the benefits of the whole food (vegan) diet. If anyone has any advice for me or can help point me in the right direction, please, now’s the time! Comment below with your thoughts and insight on the whole foods approach to healthy eating. Perhaps together we can effectively answer the question posed in the title of this post. In the meantime, let’s at least all agree to cruelty-free!