ALVIN HO is COO of VitaCare Medical Group and co-founder of FITivate Pte Ltd. He is a certified fitness professional and was named Singapore’s 10 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness aged 40 and under, by SBR. Alvin strongly believes in the adage, “Prevention is better than cure”, and strives to help individuals attain optimal fitness through living an active and healthy lifestyle.
We have been made to believe that processed foods do more harm than good to the body and that they should, therefore, be avoided at all cost. While there is some truth in there, we need to understand what the word “processed” means, while getting to the bottom of just how heavily the processing is before associating the term with all things bad.
The meaning of processed foods, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, is “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat”. Technically, processed foods can still be highly nutritious and beneficial for the body. It just depends on the kind of “human intervention” it has gone through before reaching our dining tables.
Some processed foods that remain a great source of nutrition include milk, Greek yogurt, canned tuna in brine and rolled oats.
Sometimes, processed foods end up becoming much more nutritious than all natural ones. But of course, there are always two sides to the coin. Processed foods that have been chemically tempered with or contain a powerful blend of undesirable additives are best to be avoided, I would say.
The chemical puzzle
Have you ever attempted to decipher that long list of chemicals or dubious ingredients at the back of some bottles, boxes or packages? There are ingredients such as sodium phosphate, polydextrose, sodium lactate, maltodextrin, nitrite salt, modified food starch, artificial flavourings and so on – with names that don’t roll off your tongue quite so easily, making you wonder if you should put them into your mouth.
Quite simply, though, these ingredients are added to preserve, add texture, color and flavour for the sake of convenience and palatability. A quick Google search would probably present the actual makings behind these additives – with proper approvals for safe consumption. However, for most of them, there isn’t any guarantee from side effects when consumed over an extended period of time. The bottom line is, as long as the ingredients sound alien or chemically laden, my take is to avoid, or at least, consume only in moderation.
It's not so great to be refined
Carbohydrates are essential macro-nutrients that power us through our everyday lives. As a matter of fact, processed foods have an abundance of carbohydrates, but unfortunately, the wrong kind. The refined or simple carbohydrates found in such foods are easily broken down by the body into glucose over a very short time, leading to spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Within a matter of hours, blood glucose levels will plummet as rapidly as they had risen after a meal. This phenomenon is known as “blood sugar roller coaster”, which leads the body and mind to crave for more of such food, and this opens up to the possibility of overeating.
Sugar is considered to be the most common form of refined carbs and incidentally, the most prevalent in processed foods. Consumers, beware – do not be deceived into thinking that certain processed foods are healthy just because sugar cannot be found on the ingredient list. These sweet villains can wear many masks, hiding behind more than 20 different names in food labels: corn syrup, malt syrup, rice syrup, organic cane juice, honey, and molasses are all sugars.So, too, is maltodextrin, and any other word ending in “-ose.”
Where have all the nutrients gone?
In the course of producing processed foods, naturally contained nutrition will often be sucked right out, only to have man-made ones added in its place. The body’s absorption and acceptance of synthetic nutrients is questionable, but one thing’s for sure, it will definitely not be able to replace those obtained from real, whole foods.
One nutrient that is often lost during food processing would be the all-important fibre. This plant-based nutrient is important, and not only for our digestive system. Fibre keeps our weight in check by slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates, keeping us feeling full for a longer period of time.
Avoid unhealthy fats
Vegetables are healthy but vegetable oil isn’t. A common ingredient added to processed foods such as chips and deep fried snacks, cheap hydrogenated seed or vegetable oil is considered the main sources of trans fats. Consuming such unhealthy fats leads to the formation and transportation of LDL (bad) cholesterol and can cause illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases.
In conclusion, always choose your daily food intake wisely. Strive to consume wholesome, real food and when it comes to eating processed ones, always check the labels for nutrition facts. Pick those which do not contain a messy concoction of chemicals, are low in sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats.
The bottom line is, consume all food in moderation.