The way plants and animals are bred, grown, stored, processed, packaged, shipped and prepared impacts the naturally occurring nutrients in those foods. A low-fat, all-natural food product may imply “healthy and fresh”, yet the food contained in that product is merely a shadow of it's former self. Once a whole food is disassembled, extruded, emulsified, macerated, liquefied, pasteurized and/or irradiated, it's reassembled, many times into a playful shapes and sold with a bright and bold "natural and healthy" label. Food processing is not the only factor affecting the food we eat.
Plant breeders have bred sugar in and nutrients out of plants (1). Many of the nutrients lost in this process are phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals. Every plant naturally produces several hundred phytonutrients. These naturally occurring plant chemicals are involved in cell communication, metabolism and enzyme function. Phytonutrients protect us from damaging free radicals, promote healthy cholesterol levels and inhibit tumor growth (2). As a result, plant food has more sugar and fewer phytonutrients before it even reaches the manufacturing plant.
Chickens are bred and raised to have large breasts, but not flavor. The hard, bland chicken meat of today has not only lost flavor, but also nutrients (3). Both animals and plants are disassembled and then reassembled to create a product appealing to consumers. With every step of processing, naturally occurring nutrients are lost (4). As nutrients are lost, flavors and other food additives are added in (3, 5). Food additives can negatively impact our health. Artificial sweeteners are popular food additives and may actually lead to (as opposed to prevent) obesity and obesity related diseases, such as diabetes (6).
The packaging used to keep these products fresh and safe contains substances that can migrate into foods and beverages (7). Canning results in substantial nutrient loss (8). Loss of nutrients and the addition of synthetic chemicals to our food can impact our health. For example, exposure to the synthetic estrogen bisphenol-A (BPA), found in the lining of canned food, is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity (9).
Different types of food preparation methods result in nutrient loss. For example, boiling and frying has been shown to cause significant losses of vitamin C and chlorophyll (10).
The type of food we eat changes the type of microorganisms existing in our gut. Researchers demonstrated that consumption of artificial sweeteners change the type of the microorganisms in the gut and this change is associated with metabolic diseases, such as prediabetes (6).
Our complex food system has had an impact on our food and our health. This blog will explore the factors affecting what we eat and how those factors impact our health.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.