It’s a common misconception that processed food is inherently “bad.” Interestingly enough, all of our food has been processed. Even when I pick an apple and dust it off on my shirt, I am processing my food, although minimally.
The word processed is defined as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.” Harvesting, transporting from the orchard field and washing are all part of processing. Washing is processing in its most basic form.
Processing is often confused with refinement — the process of removing unwanted pieces. Whole grains are comprised of the outer bran or husk coating; the nutritious inner germ; and the starchy endosperm that surrounds the germ. Whole grain, uncooked rice that requires longer cooking time only has the husk removed. Whole grain foods often require more cooking time than the refined counterpart. Sometimes a whole grain rice product is parboiled (another processing step) for our cooking convenience.
Refinement removes the bran or husk and germ from the grain, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This process makes a lighter, fluffier final grain product. However, by removing the germ, much of the nutrition is removed along with the fibrous bran coating. This is why whole grains are more nutritious than the white refined product.
Meat requires more processing to make it ready for the store’s uncooked meat case. Chicken feathers and cow hide must be removed, among other unmentionable animal bits.
Furthermore, cooked meats contain additives, such as paprika or cumin for color and taste. Other chemicals are added to ensure cooked meat is safe, such as sodium nitrate, which delays growth of a botulism toxin and enhances the meat’s red color. Current scientific research states these chemicals aren’t harmful in small doses.
Not all processing is harmful. Fortification, a type of processing that is beneficial for our health, supplies necessary minerals like iodine. Iodine is needed for normal cell metabolism, and we consume plenty through our nation’s love affair with salt, which is fortified with iodine.
Some foods such as whole grain brown rice are minimally processed and often need long cooking times but are worth the nutrient content. Other heavily processed foods such as instant white rice could be worth the additive chemical storm for its convenience. The choice is yours. Taste, experiment, cook. Remember, you are what you eat.