If you’re someone who actively searches for sustainable food options, you won’t be shocked to learn that Americans are currently eating too much processed food. Today, consumers in the U.S. are getting 70% of their calories from processed food. That’s a huge historical aberration, and it’s no coincidence that we’re eating more than three times the amount of sodium, twice as much fat and 60% more sugar than our ancestors were 100 years ago.
It’s also no coincidence that Americans are suffering from record rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes today. These health effects are linked to excess amounts of salt, sugar and fat, so you’re not only saving the environment when you shop organic and focus on fresh produce instead of prepackaged meals. We think it’s important for organic living fans to understand exactly what we’re pumping into our bodies when we buy these industrial approximations of real food. And since we all falter now and then, we’re hoping this info will help you stand strong when you’re searching for snacks as you roll a cart down the most dangerous aisles in the grocery store.
The Dangers of Salt, Fat and Sugar
To see what’s so bad about processed food, we’ve really got to start with those elevated sodium, fat and sugar levels. It’s no accident that the top supermarket sellers are packed with these villains of the sustainable food world. What benefits do these ingredients provide for manufacturers, and how do they affect consumers?
•Fat. Although it’s earned a horrible reputation, fat is a necessary part of the human diet. Fatty acids are needed to make every cell in your body. They’re a source of energy, they’re vitally important for nerve function, and they’re a precursor for hormones. Eat too much of it, though, and you’re just piling on the calories. Unfortunately, snack foods and prepared frozen dinners are absolutely loaded with the stuff.
It’s not just the amount of fat in processed food that’s troublesome, though. Trans fats are the main cause for concern, and this is one problem that sustainable food just doesn’t have. That’s because the food industry deliberately makes and adds trans fats to the products it sells. Trans fats are shelf-stable for longer periods of time, so the industry uses them to preserve fried foods, cookies and crackers. It doesn’t hurt that the flavor profile is also improved, at least from the manufacturer’s perspective.
But the health effects aren’t quite so tasty. Trans fats have been linked to heart disease and an increased risk of stroke, not to mention liver dysfunction. They raise levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), just like saturated fats do. But trans fats, unlike saturated fats, actually lower the amount of good cholesterol HDL in your body too. The overabundance of all kinds of fats in our diet today is cause for concern, but trans fats are a serious danger. It’s estimated that they cause as many as 100,000 premature deaths in America every year.
•Sodium. Salt is a natural food component – and we crave it – but there’s nothing natural about the sodium levels in prepared meals and snack foods. Every day, the average American consumes more than twice what the American Heart Association recommends, and 75% of that salt comes from processed foods and restaurants. When we eat home-cooked meals, of course, it’s our choice whether or not we reach for the salt shaker. Organic living enthusiasts avoid canned soups and potato chips precisely because processed foods remove that choice.
Why is the AHA so adamant that we eat less salt? When sodium levels are too high, your body thinks it needs to dilute your blood. That leads to increased blood volume, which results in high blood pressure. Over time, this has serious consequences for your heart health. In fact, high salt consumption has been linked to a 23% increase in the likelihood of stroke and a 14% rise in heart disease.
So if it’s really that dangerous, why do food manufacturers use so much of it? Salt is a natural preservative, and extending shelf life is very important if you’re a food producer. But besides helping to protect against foodborne illness and spoilage, salt makes your food tastier – and tastier food means more repeat customers.
•Sugar. Over the course of a year, the average American eats 156 pounds pounds of sugar. Now, healthy organic living requires a little sugar, and it’s a natural ingredient in fresh fruits and grains. But apples and oranges aren’t adding a pound of sugar to our diets every other day. Companies are scooping sugar into prepared foods by the spoonful, and that’s why today we’re eating it in record-breaking amounts.
Some sources of added sugar in the supermarket are obvious: shoppers who love sustainable food are wary of cookies, ice cream and colorful breakfast cereals for good reason. But some of the most egregiously sugary foods are tougher to spot. Did you know that a small serving of store-bought applesauce can contain almost six teaspoons of sugar? Or that a serving of pre-made spaghetti sauce might contain over three teaspoons? You might think yogurt is a relatively healthy snack, but the big brands pack upwards of eight teaspoons into a single six-ounce serving.
Excess sugar in the diet suppresses the brain’s ability to feel satiated at mealtime. This leads to overeating and, ultimately, an increased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. A sugar intake that’s too high can even affect our ability to learn and concentrate. We’re addicted to sugar on a personal as well as a societal level, and the consequences are serious.
Artificial preservatives, coloring agents and flavor additives aren’t good for us either, of course. The FDA stays silent on several dangerous chemicals in food (including brominated vegetable oil, propyl gallate and sodium nitrate) even though they add no nutritive value. Because these chemicals are normally found in trace amounts, we tend to overlook them if we’re not already aiming to shop organic.
Processed Food is Also Missing Key Nutrients
These nasty additives are bad enough, but shoppers also need to think about common nutrients that are subtracted during manufacturing. Vitamins in fruits and vegetables are destroyed when exposed to the excessively high and low temperatures that you’ll find in factory kitchens. Grains almost completely lose their nutritive value during industrial milling and grinding, and natural flavor also disappears – which is a big reason for those outrageous sugar and sodium levels.
Processed food is basically a nutritionally deficient flavor-delivery system. That’s what we buy when we turn our backs on sustainable food. If you’re looking for real flavor and real nutrition, you’ll need to forget about salty, sugary, fatty snacks. Focus instead on fresh produce and home-cooked meals to maximize the nutritive value of your diet – there’ll be tastiness to spare.
Kick the Habit and Become a Sustainable Food Devotee
So what are we getting now that we devote twice as much of our food budget to processed goods as we did 30 years ago? The answer, of course, is a litany of health problems and fewer important nutrients. Organic living advocates don’t see this trend reversing any time soon unless we make a conscious effort to seek out whole grains and fresh, local vegetables.
As for the benefits of better food preservation, it’s nice to worry less about foodborne illness and the environmental cost of food waste. But we’re throwing out 50% more food than we did in the 1970s, even with the rise of ageless snack cakes and non-dairy whipped topping. All told, 40% of the food in America is wasted – an unconscionable fact considering that one in five Americans was unable to afford groceries at least once in 2012.
Our belief is that while food waste is a growing problem, processed food certainly isn’t helping us solve it. That’s why we think BerryBreeze™ is such a revolutionary idea. The activated oxygen released by this compact device fights mold, bacteria and other microbes in your refrigerator so that your fruits, veggies and other foods can stay fresher longer. When you shop organic and stock up on fresh produce, you’ll know that the food won’t end up in the trash. As a result, you’ll make fewer shopping trips and you’ll conserve fuel. All told, there’s no easier way to fight food waste and reduce your environmental footprint.
Do you think your friends could use a quick pep talk about the dangers of salty snacks and sugary treats? Please share this article with them to keep them on the straight and narrow.