Deceptive food

Is industrially processed food same as real food?


We all want to make good food choices and we look for the terms - “heart healthy”, “ high in fiber”, “natural”, “ organic”, “rich in omega-3” etc. In most cases the advertisements and labels are only a part of marketing strategy. A food may be high in fiber or omega-3 and and yet highly processed.

Here are 3 ways to identify processed foods with ease:

1) If there are multiple ingredients on a label most likely it is a highly processed food product.

2) If a product contains even a single ingredient that one normally does not use in the home cooking then it is a processed food. For example do we normally use EDTA in our cooking? It is a common ingredient in packaged food items but many of us may not have even heard of it.

3) If it is not possible to achieve the texture, appearance or flavor of a food product at home you are looking at a processed food item. For example, when you pick a box of corn flakes think about whether corn flakes are ever made in home kitchens today or if our grandparents prepared these in their kitchens. If the answer is no then you don’t even have to look at the ingredient label as there is a good chance it will meet the other two common characteristics of processed foods.

Here are some common examples of foods, we may not have realized, were so highly processed.

Some ideas for real food alternatives of these industrial foods are discussed at the bottom of the page.
Although brands are visible in these pictures these particular ones are not different from any other brand. All brands have similar marketing strategies and advertisements for selling processed foods. Unpackaged bulk food items in grocery stores, without any brand names, also can be highly processed particularly the snacks. It is the nature, ingredients and preparation of the food item that determines if it is highly processed, irrespective of the brand name, packaging or health claim.
We have all been made to believe by marketing and advertising that the ready to eat cold cereals or the quick cooking hot breakfast cereals are good for health. They infact are no different from any other processed foods adversely affecting our health.
processed food, junk food, eat healthy
Breakfast cereals specially the ones marketed for children are highly processed. While preparing breakfast at home no one will ever add red 40, blue 2 lake or even rice syrup to the breakfast. However, the pictures and health labels on the boxes often steal our attention from these ingredients.
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If there are whole grains in a cereal product it is often marketed as natural and wholesome. Is it natural - yes. Is every natural substance wholesome and good - no. Do we know enough about all the "natural" ingredients in a box?
When would you use inulin or glycerine in your home cooking?
If honey is dehydrated and boxed would it retain the same goodness as adding honey yourself to your breakfast?
What are those "natural flavors" mentioned under the ingredients? How and from what exactly are these flavoring agents made?
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Even the bland, without added colors and what is considered healthy, should be questioned.
What is Tripotassium phosphate doing in the ingredients and would we ever shop for this ingredient to cook with?
All the vitamins and minerals in the ingredients are often ignored as "something good for us". These vitamins are not in their natural state as present in vegetables or whole grains. These were added to the food during processing.
Vitamins and minerals need to be added to the industrial foods because the excessive processing causes a loss of these nutrients from food. The effect of added vitamins/nutrients may not be the same as of nutrients that exist in food in their natural state.
Irrespective of one's beliefs or doubts about health-supplements the focus here is on the significant alteration of nature of food. Addition of supplements, vitamins, minerals etc is an indication of industrial processing of foods.

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Hot cereals are no different.
Look beyond the labels and health claims. The pictures of the ingredients shown on the box may be very pleasing, giving the appearance of a good wholesome food.
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This is the same box as in the picture above. A product may be advertised as having 100% whole grain. Sure there may be 100% whole grains used but whole grains do not constitute 100% of ingredients. There are so many other ingredients which one may not recognize at all.
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This at first glance seems to be a perfect meal. However, do not forget to ask yourself what is in the "natural flavor" which is mentioned as an ingredient in so many products. The word natural has a huge psychological impact on us. It makes us feel good and it often makes us think the product is safe and healthy. That is not always the case. There are poisonous plants and other harmful natural minerals & substances. They are all natural as well and we avoid them. However when we are considering food the word "natural" is rarely scrutinized. We assume natural is good but we should ask what precisely is the substance that is in the "natural flavor"
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Cereal bars are also advertised as healthy and good for us. A convenient, on-the-go breakfast or snack.
We are trading our health for convenience when the list of ingredients is so long.

Real food alternatives to the industrially prepared breakfast cereals and cereal bars

Cold Cereal breakfast
One will have to be very creative to make something similar to boxed cereal with long shelf life. That itself tells us the highly industrial processed food cold cereals are. Options are to switch to hot-cereal cooked from scratch.
If you're looking for something quick to eat a yogurt-fruit-nut breakfast made fresh at home is an option. Here is the link for a
recipe suggestion
Another quick option not requiring much cooking in the morning could be toasted bread cut in small pieces, mixed with fresh fruits, resins and nuts, served in a bowl, with milk poured over (similar concept as cold-cereals)

Hot Cereals
Hot cereals cooked at home from scratch are far more delicious than the industrially processed quick to cook hot cereal (microwavable packs of pre-mixed hot cereal). A bit of planning can help cook the breakfast from scratch without spending all the cooking time in front of the stove.
Before you brush your teeth start a pot of water and cereal on the stove( any cereal such as oat, wheat, mixed-grains etc). By the time you're done brushing your teeth and making coffee the cereal is cooked. Add your favorite toppings - dates, figs, resins, fresh fruits, cinnamon or cardamom. You have the option of keeping these toppings chopped and mixed in a container in the fridge if you do not wish to chop them in the morning.
Recipe idea:
oatmeal with dates and figs

On -the-go breakfast - alternatives to cereal bars
  • Make breakfast sandwich the prior night
  • Fruits like banana, apple, orange are perfect examples of nature's on-the-go breakfast or snack
  • Hot cereal can be prepared the night before and carried in a ceramic mug or any other glass container with lid. Just add a tablespoon of water and it is ready to microwave at work. This can be an excellent alternative to buying the microwaveable pre-mixed cereal cups.