The term “processed food” is used a lot and usually means it’s unhealthy, but isn’t the term a bit too vague to be useful? There are so many ways to *process* food. Michael talks well about fermented foods but then under the heading “Processed foods” (p. 156) mentions a salami sandwich, implying it’s bad because it’s processed. But salami is fermented, at least when made the traditional way. I suppose there are good and bad versions of what’s called salami, but the term “processed food” is still confusing to me.
To me the term “processed-food” represents something different/ more than the individual words.
A modern processed food item isn’t quite the same as a traditionally preserved food item. Where humans once salted/ air dried/ pickled/ fermented, we now add preservatives, artificial flavourings, sugars, colourants, and kill the potentially beneficial microbes with ultra high temperatures.
A seemingly traditionally preserved meat or cheese may well be from an intensively reared farm animal. So the food may have been unnaturally ‘processed’ long before it left the animal and found its way into a (heavily processed) sandwich.
If you can source traditionally preserved/ fermented meats – no nitrates or nitrites – from animals reared outdoors, by all means include small servings in a balanced and varied wholefood diet.
The closest widely available option here in the UK is Prosciutto di Parma PDO. If would love to find a similar spicy chorizo!
Thanks for your input, Firefox7275. I was inspired to check Wikipedia for information on food processing, and it offered a rather nuanced view point, although the article on Food processing was thought to be biased. There is also an article on Convenience food, which apparently is also called tertiary processed food, and it mentions things like long shelf-life, i.e., preservatives and other food additives. Wikipedia offered no definition of tertiary processed food, but I found one on glosbe.com: Food so prepared and presented as to be easily and quickly ready for consumption.
You specifically mentions nitrates and nitrites, which I also checked. I compiled the following info from the two articles on nitrate and nitrite (my editing):
According to Wikipedia, nitrates are reduced to nitrites in the saliva. A rich source of inorganic nitrate in the human body body comes from diets rich in leafy green foods, such as spinach and arugula. The use of nitrite for curing meats goes back to the Middle Ages, and in the US has been formally used since 1925. Because of the relatively high toxicity of nitrite (the lethal dose in humans is about 22 milligrams per kilogram of body weight), the maximum allowed nitrite concentration in meat products is 200 ppm. At these levels, some 80 to 90% of the nitrite in the average U.S. diet is not from cured meat products, but from natural nitrite production from vegetable nitrate intake. Under certain conditions – especially during cooking – nitrites in meat can react with degradation products of amino acids, forming nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. However, the role of nitrites (and to some extent nitrates) in preventing botulism has prevented the complete removal of nitrites from cured meat, and indeed by definition in the U.S., meat cannot be labeled as “cured” without nitrite addition.
So not so straight-forward 🙂 but I suppose salami on pizza may be something to enjoy infrequently. But back to my original issue, “processed foods” then is to be understood as “tertiary processed foods” with unnaturally extended shelf-life for convenience purposes.
Interesting information, thank you! I did not know you could not get nitrate/ nitrite free cured meats in the US.
I believe there is (or was?) a similar issue with certain European traditional cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, when imported to the US. The mysterious microbial cocktail that creates the characteristic flavours, odours and health benefits, also raises concerns over potential pathogens.
I wish the precise combination of factors governing the health risks from regular intake of processed/ preserved meats was known. I can do without bacon and sausages, but not the cured ham!
Eating healthy for the most part will allow one to enjoy the not-so-healthy-but-tasty foods on occasion, is my philosophy 🙂 I can do without the ham, too, but I do like salami. And cake.