The majority of the food we eat today is very different than the food we ate several decades ago and vastly different than the food consumed a couple of hundred years ago, before the industrial revolution.
As our food industry grew and more products became available, we have had to distinguish or redefine food items. For example, food that people grow or raise to be consumed, like organic vegetables or grass-fed beef, we now call “whole food,” whereas in the not-so-distant past this would just have been called “food.”
Today, we have minimally processed foods (shelled nuts, bagged salad, or ground coffee beans), moderately processed foods (salad dressing, tomato sauces, and cake mixes), and highly-processed foods (frozen pizza, ice cream, and soft drinks/soda).
Since the majority of Americans consume foods purchased from a store rather than growing and raising our food, the question is, what type of food should we be purchasing and eating to support proper growth, development, maintenance, and physiological function of the body so that we stay healthy throughout life?
Let’s take a look at what current research says about the type of food we eat today.
Whole food is natural, organic food like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, which have not been refined and do not contain artificial additives or preservatives.
Most countries, including America, have dietary guidelines that recommend consuming whole foods, such as fruit and vegetables, every day. Most people know that eating fruits and vegetables are good for us, but do we know why?
Research shows that diets high in fruits and vegetables promote health. Whole plant foods are diverse sources of energy and nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Plant foods also contain substance like fiber, and phytochemicals that function as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, and anti-inflammatory agents that can protect the body.
Whole food, plant-based diets have been associated with reduced symptoms in disease states like osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and Alzheimer disease.
A 2011 article published in Advances in Nutrition states that “there is convincing evidence that diets high in fruits and vegetables are associated with reduced cancer in the lung, oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, and colon.”
Research shows that phytochemicals found in whole plant foods can modulate or adjust processes in the body that would otherwise lead to the development of degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, and pulmonary disorders. For example, research shows that apple procyanidins (flavonoid) enhance apoptosis (programmed cell death) against colon cancer cells showing it to be a chemopreventive agent against colon cancer.
Processed food is food that has been altered or deliberately changed before it is consumed.
Processing isn’t always a bad thing. For example, cooking, refrigerating, or canning food can alter the food but can predigest or preserve the food making it easier for the body to break down and use, or keep the food free from bacteria or mold growth that could infect and damage the body.
So, when we talk of processed food here, we are describing the more moderately to highly processed food items of the 20th century and beyond. Food items that have had ingredients added to them to preserve the product making it shelf-stable, or colored or flavored to make it more appealing to the eye or taste. These food items would include prepackaged foods like sauces, cake mixes, cereal bars, salad dressings, cookies, spreadable cheese, and soft drinks.
The USFDA is the governing body responsible for regulating what food companies add to the processed food sold here in America. Upwards of 3900 additives, from aspartame to zinc, are approved for use today.
Food additives like carboxymethylcellulose (cellulose gum) are used to thicken or emulsify a product like ice cream. Other additives provide shelf stability for the product such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) that prevent oils in the product from spoiling and are found in items like granola bars and breakfast cereals. Other chemicals are added to our food for appearance purposes, like caramel color that makes cola (soda) brown.
These added chemicals have not only the intended effect, like thickening, preserving, or coloring, but can also have unintended effects on the body.
For example, emulsifiers like carboxymethylcellulose (cellulose gum) have been shown to alter gut microbes and promote colitis and metabolic syndrome in rodent studies. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), as a lipophilic chemical, is said to promote absorption of toxic hydrophilic agents that cause diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A 2015 study published in PLoS One analyzed soft drinks containing caramel color as, through the manufacturing process, individual’s can be exposed to the chemical 4-MEI which increases cancer risk. The study found that the consumption of certain products (Malta Goya, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and others) led to 4-MEI exposures with risks exceeding the acceptable level used by U.S. federal regulatory agencies.
These three examples (cellulose gum, BHT, and caramel color) of food additives used today show the intended and unintended effects that these products can have on the food item and also the human body when consumed.
This quick review of the literature shows:
Whole foods contain energy, nutrients, and substances that work synergistically to support proper growth, development, and maintenance of the human body and promote health.
Processed foods contain added chemicals that extend the shelf-life of the product, and make it more appealing to the eye and taste. These added chemicals also have unintended effects such as altered function, and they increase the toxic burden of the body, which has been shown to promote certain disease states such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Jeremiah 29:5 “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”
Slavin, J. L., & Lloyd, B. (2012). Health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 3(4), 506-16. doi:10.3945/an.112.002154
Clinton, C. M., O'Brien, S., Law, J., Renier, C. M., & Wendt, M. R. (2015). Whole-foods, plant-based diet alleviates the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Arthritis, 2015, 708152.
Hyson D. A. (2011). A comprehensive review of apples and apple components and their relationship to human health. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 2(5), 408-20.
Zeliger H. I. (2013). Exposure to lipophilic chemicals as a cause of neurological impairments, neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. Interdisciplinary toxicology, 6(3), 103-10.