Getting Off the Processed Food Conveyor

The U.S. imported $31 billion in processed food from around the world in 2007 (1). According to the USDA, average food spending per person increased about 2.4 percent during 1992-2002, from $2,191 to $2,245. Food shipments were valued at over $511 billion in 2004. About 43 percent of the food dollar was spent on food away from home in 2002.

Only slightly under half of the food manufactured – and presumably consumed – in the United States each year is whole food. The rest is processed, to some degree. What do we mean by processed? Quite simply, food that is processed is modified from its natural state. Fruits, vegetables and grains that are in their whole state and packaged – are not processed. Dairy that is skimmed and pasteurized, made into cheese – is processed food. Meats that are butchered – are processed foods. Packaged macaroni and cheese (and the like) is clearly processed food.

Clearly, some degrees of processing are worse for you than others. Prepared foods (i.e. mac & cheese) tend to contain the most amount of bad-for-you ingredients, including high levels of sodium, saturated fats and additives.

So, what’s the big deal?

  • Anything that passes through manufacturing facilities and processes progressively carries more and more risk, the more hands or machines it passes through. In a basic example – a cow butchered into pieces and delivered to your home from a farm (or picked up, as my case may be) is much less likely to suffer indignations that may cause food safety issues than a cow that is butchered, cured, packaged for wholesale, shipped, repacked for retail, stocked, stored, and sold. The same cow shipped to a manufacturing facility that makes canned beef stew, butchered into cubes, cooked with other ingredients, packed for long term storage, shipped, and sold risks tampering, contamination, or poor food handling or human error that lead to risks.
  • Processed food often contains man-made additives that are yucky – or may not be proven NOT to be yucky. A number of American and British studies since the 1970s have directly correlated the consumption of products with additives – namely dyes, colorings, preservatives and “flavor enhancers” – to developmental disorders in children, and allergies in all ages.
  • Processed food is usually packaged food and packages… are an unfortunate problem. Since we each generate about 4 pounds of trash a day (that is, if you’re an American), we can clearly stand to reduce our packaging. Buying whole foods in bulk instead of processed foods in small boxes is an excellent way to start.
Need more convincing that ingredients in processed foods can be questionable (at best) and that it’s best to eat natural, whole foods whenever possible? Check out these points (there are more, this is just the tip of the gross-processed-food-trivia iceberg):
  • Artificial colors and preservatives cause hyperactivity in children.
  • In an article published in Discover Magazine in March 2007, Harvard pediatric neurologist Martha Herbert discussed the connection between autism spectrum disorders and environmental triggers, including foods and food additives. In summary, she said that autistic children’s symptoms often improve when the child is told to fast before testing – connecting autism spectrum disorder symptoms to food exposure. Is this a connection to additives and colorings? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s a food allergy or other systemic reaction. But, perhaps it is. Why bother with the risk?
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) blames processed foods for spiking obesity rates in the United States (among other things).
  • Fast-acting carbohydrates in the form of starches in highly processed foods behave just like sugar – and increase diabetes risk.
  • High sodium and trans fatty acid contents increase risk of stroke and heart attack.
  • Refined carbohydrates, processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, etc) are proven to increase cancer risk.
  • Acrylamide is a known carcinogen created when foods are cooked at high temperatures. Think French fries, corn dogs, breakfast cereals and snack chips.
  • In November 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study that linked the “buttery-flavoring” on microwave popcorn to lung cancer in workers exposed to the chemical base. Ew. What else does this lovely substance do when we eat it?
What can you do to reduce your reliance on processed foods?
  • Replace lunch meats with home-roasted meats. Roast a local, organic chicken once a week and have chicken salad, roasted chicken sandwiches, chicken soup for lunch instead of processed lunch meats.
  • Eat more salads, whole grains and fresh fruit. Americans consistently underperform in the “getting your veggies” department (and fruit, and grains).
  • Bake bread once a week. Two loaves of bread lasts an entire week, and made with high protein grains (such as quinoa), can be a healthy cornerstone of a diet.
  • Cut out the chips and crackers. Your body doesn’t really need them, anyway.
  • Bake and freeze cookies once a month. If you (or your kid, in my case) has a sweet tooth – make a cookie day once a month and freeze enough not to have to buy bags and boxes at the grocery store.
  • Invest some time in the “make-a-bunch-and-freeze-it” strategy. Soups, stews, and pasta sauces make lunch (and quick dinner) for months if cooked and frozen properly. Think about what your family will eat and plan two big cooking days every month to make and freeze those items. Popular in our house are beef or venison stew, chicken-pear stew, wedding soup, pesto and red pasta sauces, and curry sauce. Heat or quick-prepare and they’re as easy as anything in a can or box and so much better for you and the environment.
  • Think before you eat (which means, think before you leave your house). Convenience foods are just that – convenience foods. If you plan appropriately, there’s very little need for them.
  1. U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission
Further Reading:


If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Kelsey (anonymous)

When do you see a grain in a grocery store that is not processed?

Written in February 2009

Laura (anonymous)

Kelsey (anonymous)

"When do you see a grain in a grocery store that is not processed? Written in February 2009"

True! Thus, avoid grain as far as you can.

Written in March 2010

Rosemarie (anonymous)

The best whole grains bread I've found is at Great Harvest Bread Company. They grind their what right there at the store. It is expensive but worth it and Fridays they will double punch your bread card!

Written in October 2010

Dan (anonymous)

One problem that i have with eating healthy is that it can be expensive.When i go to the natural foods section at the store everything is 3 times the price as processed yucky food..sure wish that wasn't the case because i love the natural products like blue chips and veggie hotdogs,but at nearly $4 a package that hurts in the end..

Written in November 2011

Add a comment
  • to get your picture next to your comment (not a member yet?).
  • Posted on Jan. 26, 2008. Listed in:

    See other articles written by Stacy »


    Pledge to do these related actions

    Don't use much paper, 373°

    Use emails wherever possible - they aren't made from trees :)

    Support a Do Not Mail Registry in the U.S., 81°

    Junk mail wastes our time, invades our privacy, and destroys the environment. Go to ...

    Food for Change: eat only plant-based foods for one whole DAY, 157°

    Simply experience what it's like. Make sure to consume lots of vegetables and fruit, not ...

    Follow these related projects

    Plastic Pollution Coalition Membership

    Berkeley, CA, United States

    Local Farm Link

    Black Creek, Canada

    Featured Companies & Orgs