Read The Label

Is processed food really unhealthy for you, and if so what can be done to make it healthier? Brendyn Lotz explores the matter.

Statistics South Africa reported in August 2017 that the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages has increased by 5.7% year-on-year. Meanwhile, salaries only increased 1.1% year-on-year, after taking into consideration a gross inflation rate of 4.8%.

Food is not becoming expensive, it is already expensive, and when confronted with the prices on the shelves in your local grocery store, you might find yourself reaching for processed goods that may be more affordable but also have a list of ingredients longer than your arm.

Of course, a can of baked beans might not be the healthiest option, but legumes are a better way to stretch a soup or stew further for less money than adding an extra portion of meat. And a few slices of bread at dinner can fill the gap if you can’t afford another steak, or any steak at all.

Perhaps these are extreme cases, but many South Africans have to choose between paying for transport to get to work every day, or eating a balanced meal three times daily.  The problem is that while we might guard our wallets closely, we should be guarding our health closely as well.

The truth about  processed food

Many people have a negative reaction to the  word “processed” when it’s followed by the word “food”, but the truth is that a large portion of the food we consume every day is processed.

Dietitian at Discovery Vitality, Terry Harris, explains that peeled, washed, frozen vegetables and pasteurised milk are minimally processed foods. Moderately processed foods include items such as yoghurts and cheeses. These foods contain preservatives, and have been mixed or cooked in some manner.

“Highly or ultra-processed food has been substantially changed from its natural state, with various additional ingredients added that would not be found in a home kitchen, such as flavour and texture enhancers or ingredients to extend its shelf life,” Harris says.

These foods often have a high sugar and fat content, which can lead to obesity if consumed in large quantities too often. Examples of these foods include take-away meals, brick margarines and processed meats such as polony and sausages.

Some foods “hide” the presence of sugars and salts effectively, as they aren’t overly  sweet or salty. For example, bread contains high levels of salt despite tasting great with cheese and jam, both of which are also processed.

It appears then that consuming some level of processed food is unavoidable. So what can be done to lessen the impact of its effect on our bodies?

The obvious answer is to decrease our reliance on it. But with a high inflation rate and salaries not matching the pace at which food prices increase, it seems we are simply not going to be reaching for extra vegetables anytime soon.

Why we choose ultra-processed food

Aside from the lower price compared to fresh, raw ingredients, there are other reasons that we reach for ultra-processed food rather than a bag of apples.

“Our brains are wired for survival and the ‘pleasure centres’ in our brains are activated when we consume energy-dense foods, notably those that are rich in carbohydrates and fats,” explains nutrition expert Andrea du Plessis.

There’s also the convenience that ultra-processed foods offer. With time being an increasingly limited commodity in our fast-paced world, and the stress levels of many rising every day, consumers simply opt to stop at the local  fast-food chain on the way home rather than spend an extra hour cooking after work.

“One can easily see the ‘convenience food trap’ that many of us fall into, especially when the budget is tight, stress levels are high and time is under pressure,” says Du Plessis.

Time for a change

So we know that processed foods contain sugar, salt and other additives to keep the price down and the shelf life long, and that opting for those foods, no matter how cheap they are, can have a negative impact on our health.

“With modern technology, each year new chemicals are introduced to keep foods from spoiling. An accumulation of these chemicals may place strain on our organs of elimination – kidneys, liver, intestine and skin,” says clinical nutritionist and wellness expert Desi Horsman.

It is unlikely that the production methods used to create ultra-processed foods are going to change anytime soon, but there are ways you can be more informed about what you’re putting into your body. Reading the labels of foodstuffs is incredibly important.

“The first three ingredients on the label indicate what you are getting most of in that food, so if for example the first ingredient is sugar, put it back down on the shelf and look for alternatives,” says Horsman. She adds that, where possible, consumers should shop around and try to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from a market or local farmers as their prices may be more affordable than those of the supermarkets.

Registered dietician at Pick n Pay, Leanne Kiezer, says that the company is trying to make processed food a bit healthier. “Pick n Pay has proactive sugar and salt reduction policies in place for our private-label products. Our experience so far has shown that sugar and salt can be removed from products without necessarily increasing costs. Decreasing the salt and sugar content in products does not necessarily reduce flavour either, but often allows the natural flavour of the product to  come through.”

The onus on eating healthier very much lies with the consumer, rather than large retailers, and with an impending sugar tax on the way, we should be exploring how to improve our diets in new ways. While ultra-processed foods are cheaper now, Horsman leaves us with an important thought.

“Ultimately, one pays the price for consuming processed foods, whether it is in the form of tax or doctors’ bills. The price of ill health is heavy and at the very least money is spent  on supplements to replace the nutrients that have been stripped out of the food.”

Improving your diet in small ways

There are a few ways that South Africans can improve their diet, according to Terry Harris at Discovery. We can all eat a bit healthier by following the official dietary recommendations, which take into account poverty and food insecurity in the country.

  • Starchy foods such as potatoes and rice should be a part of most meals, along with a helping of vegetables and fruit.
  • Dried beans, split peas, lentils and soya are not only cheap but packed with nutrients. It’s wise to consume these regularly.
  • South Africans should also use fats, sugar and salt sparingly.
  • Drinking lots of clean, safe water is a must, as is drinking milk, maas or yoghurt every day.

Fast fact

Processed foods are designed to “hijack the biochemistry of the brain”, tricking us into thinking we want to eat more of them, which can lead to overconsumption of these foods that are high in salt, fat and sugar.

Image : ©Shutterstock - 108527399
Image : ©Shutterstock - 108527399

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