Q. I am trying to reduce the amount of processed foods in my diet, and I recently learned that soy milk is a processed food; which leads me to wonder whether cow's milk and other dairy products are also considered "processed"? Would I be better off taking a supplement to get my vitamin D and calcium?
A. Yes, soybeans are cooked and pressed to make plain soy milk. Commercially available cow's milk is skimmed, homogenized, and pasteurized. So, both are "processed." However, either one would be considerably less processed than a vitamin supplement, don't you think?
I think the movement away from processed foods is a great idea! But if avoiding "processed" foods means that you need to take a vitamin supplement to supply missing nutrients, I think you may have missed the point of the exercise!
Cooked vegetables and pasteurized milk are technically "processed foods." And there are those who will argue that uncooked vegetables and unpasteurized milk are better for you. But I really don't think we need to go that far to improve the nutritional quality of most people's diets.
How do you define processing?
Think of processing as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you might have a raw ear of corn. On the other end might be corn chips. In its journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, the raw corn is cut off the cob, cooked, dried, ground, combined with sugar, salt, and fat, shaped into chips, and fried.
We'd all immediately recognize corn chips as "processed" food. But where exactly do we draw the line between unprocessed and processed? As soon as we cut the ear off the cob? When we boil it? When we grind it into flour? When we add sugar, salt, and preservatives? When we fry it?
People are going to draw that line in different places. Some might consider cooked corn OK but ground corn meal too processed. I'd probably draw the line a step later, when the sugar, salt and preservatives are added. But it's obviously somewhat arbitrary.
A step in the right direction
Depending on how you want to define "unprocessed," a 100% unprocessed diet may not be practical. But every step you can take toward the "unprocessed" end of the spectrum is a step in the right direction.
Michael Pollan proposes several humorous, common-sense guidelines in his recent books In Defense of Food and Food Rules, such as:
1. Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize.
2. Don't eat cereal that changes the color of your milk.
Here are some other "food rules" that can help you shift your diet away from processed foods:
3. Eat more food that comes without packaging.
4. Look for foods with fewer than 5 ingredients in the ingredient list.
5. Avoid things made with ingredients that you don't recognize as food.
6. Eat more whole intact grains and less flour.
7. Eat most of your fruit whole and unprocessed.
8. Eat at least some of your vegetables raw every day.
What would you add?