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Are processed foods (ever) healthy?

May 16, 2011

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!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Erin permalink
    May 16, 2011 10:17 pm

    Dear Joe:

    I think there three things one must look at when assessing the healthiness of any particular food: Nutritional density, presence of bad stuff, and whether the nutrients used to “enrich” processed foods are as “good” as the nutirents that naturally ocur in whole foods.

    Assuming a nutrient is a nutrient (e.g. the B12 added to soymilk is equivalent to the B12 naturally occurring in meat), then which of two foods is healthier depends how many nutrients each provides per calorie, versus how much/many “health detractors” they contain and how bad those health detractors are.

    Whole foods tend to contain little bad stuff (though the pesticides etc. that coat alot of our delicate produce make me wonder at their advantage over an organic fruit roll-up) and tend to be pretty nutritionally dense. Processed foods tend to contain a lot of bad stuff (preservatives and the like) and less of the good stuff – though of course a lot of common processed foods are “enriched.”

    Consequently, looking at things from a statistical point of view, one who eats a whole food diet is going to be eating healthier than one who eats a processed food diet. This does not necessarily mean, however, that every whole food is healthier than every processed food.

    I actually find the same flawed logical leap by those who advocate vegan diets. Vegan food does tend to be more healthy, ergo following a vegan diet is more likely to promote health than the standard American diet is. It does not follow, however, that all meat is inherently unhealthy or that veganism is inherently healthy. A diet that is rich in whole foods but contains small amounts of meat is certainly healthier than a vegan diet that consists of potato chips and oreos.

    The bottom line is, stop trying to draw artificial boundaries around your diet. Take the time to read the ingredient list and actually think about where your food comes from. And accept that all bread (even whole grain gluten free bla bla bla) should be consumed in moderation and there is no such thing as a healthy cupcake.

    A couple of points to end on – First, there is a lot of debate over whether “artificial nutrients” in “enriched” foods are equivalent to “naturally occurring nutrients.” I would be interested in a collection of “hard facts” on this issue. Have many studies been done comparing the two types of nutrients?

    Second, my statements above suggest that the “health argument” does not unequivocally support veganism. The moral argument, of course, does.

    • May 25, 2011 2:40 pm

      Thanks for the fabulous, detailed response!

      In response to your 1st ending point regarding “enriched” vs. “naturally occurring” nutrients, there are definitely facts out there. There is quite some content in Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”, and T. Colin Campbell touches on it in “The China Study” (p.228). Vitamin supplements have often not proven to have any health benefit and even have potentially adverse effects. There is still more work to be done, but I’m pretty sure that vitamins should not replace healthy whole foods. If people think they are doing alright by eating McDonald’s and popping their multi-vitamins, they are terribly wrong. In fact, it’s probably hazardous for their health.

  2. May 17, 2011 10:17 am

    Great article. I have been in similar instances and it can be frustrating – to appear ‘wrong’ when you know you are ‘right’! However what has helped me to deal with these situations is to realize and accept that it’s not my job to prove anything to anyone. I choose to eat the way that I do because it suits me best, and if people are genuinely curious about my diet/lifestyle and want information, I willingly share. But if I sense that they are looking for a debate/argument or simply speaking to hear their own voice, I sit back and let things go as they may. I know what I know – I believe what I believe – and it’s not always up for discussion. Once I let go of feeling like I need to ‘prove’ myself or justify my actions, life got a whole lot simpler. Sometimes I’d rather have peace than be right.

    • May 25, 2011 2:43 pm

      Thanks! And I agree. I need to start feeling more content with just knowing that I am right (or at least that I am confident with what I am choosing to do) and not have to always prove others wrong or “save” others from their own misconceptions of reality. Inner peace is not my strong suit, but I suppose I can practise attaining it more.


  1. Whole versus Processed Foods: A Reply to Joe Vegan – NCVA VegOttawa Blog

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