The Problem With Processed Foods

By design, most processing concentrates certain nutrients and biochemicals while removing others.  This skews the natural ratios that we have evolved to eat.   This leads to two phenomena which, over many years, seems like a bad idea to subject one’s body to:

  1. Over-concentration: Just because a little bit of something is harmless or even healthy for you, doesn’t mean that large quantities are better.  Often times it’s worse for you, and even toxic.  While supplements are an extreme example of this — consider Vitamin D toxicity, which is something that only happens if you get it in supplement form — processed foods in general can take a food which is a net positive and turn it into a net negative.  So, whereas whole oranges you can eat quite a bit of and improve your health, drinking lots of orange juice is bad for you (the sugar content badness outweighs the micronutrient goodness).
  2. The missing 99.99%: There are tens of thousands of phytochemicals and other micronutrients in whole vegetables and fruits.  So if you are eating a significant portion of your daily food intake in the form of processed foods, think of all the health-promoting biochemicals you are not getting.  Furthermore, you were evolved to eat the entire package (i.e. the whole food), and if you are eating processed foods you are only getting a handful (less than 0.01%) of these things that are good for you.  As Mark Bittman says, “It’s not the beta-carotene, it’s the carrot.”  The point is not that you need every single phytochemical every day but rather you don’t which ones you don’t need and which ones you do in what combination, etc.  And neither does anyone else.  So the rational strategy is to eat a variety of unprocessed foods to cover your bases.

Here is Bittman’s TED talk, which is well worth watching:

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  • TheQuickBrownFox

    Good points but I think it’s a little bit unfair to pick on vitamin D supplements, despite the valid point you were illustrating. Supplementing vitamin D is useful because it compensates for our “processed” lifestyles in which most of us get a small fraction of the sunlight we evolved with due to buildings and clothing (and sunblock recommendations) and many of us live in areas with much less sunlight than our ancestral origins. The number of people suffering from vitamin D toxicity is tiny and virtually all of us are deficient!

    Add to that the fact the recommended daily intake of D is at a not even barely useful level and doctors and pharmacists tend to provide the less useful D2 form rather than animal D3. Also, a lot of research seems to be coming about currently that suggests it is an important hormone in reducing the risks of cancers and metabolic syndrome.

    All this considered, it might be helpeful to prescribe vitamin D across the board. Just like we are doing with statins now. Like I said, good point but unfortunate example! :)

  • Rafe Furst

    Glad you brought this up as it illustrates well the “missing 99.99%” concept. Vitamin D is not the only thing you get from sunlight exposure that is crucial for well-being. Neurotransmitters like serotonin are activated and these have profound effects on mood, circadian rhythms and more. The production of Vitamin D from sunlight is a complex process involving many different biochemical pathways (see this book chapter). And these are just some of the known essential effects of sunlight exposure besides the end-form Vitamin D that you get from supplementation. What else do we not know about?

    If that wasn’t enough, consider the following. Not enough Vitamin D causes the body to leach calcium from your bones. Too much calcium intake causes 125 D (the active by-product of Vitamin D) to drop. Compare this to getting your Vitamin D from sunlight where it’s actually quite easy to get enough, and impossible to get too much (your body naturally regulates production).

    In the end we all have to make personal choices. I am very aware of the epidemic proportions of Vitamin D deficiency and the seriousness of that condition. But based on everything I’ve read and all the experts I’ve spoken with, I don’t think there would ever be a circumstance where I personally would take Vitamin D in supplement form. I would increase my sunlight exposure and make sure to eat foods naturally high in Vitamin D, like mushrooms and spinach.

  • TheQuickBrownFox

    I take your point. However, I’m not sure diet or a little extra time outdoors can make a reasonable impact on the severe lack of sunlight.

    Part of that 99.99% your refer to is our environment, which we have radically transformed. We could not accurately reproduce our evolutionary environment without undoing a few thousand years of “development”. In my case, one way of getting optimal sunlight would be to quit my job, move back to my country of ethnic origin and spent my days outdoors. The price I pay for not doing this is taking supplements. In fact, it’s the price we pay for civilisation. We get to have our modern comforts and we get to have the elaborate infrastructure which enables this very discussion electronically over a great distance, but if we want optimal health we may have to supplement with high concentrations not available in food.

    I agree, though, that it is a risk since we don’t fully understand the interactions involved. However, neither do we understand the full effects of eating a lot of mushrooms and spinach. We may still try to make do with the best knowledge available, and aim to reduce the risks of using supplements by ensuring they are not synthetic and derived from sources available in human diet.

    A comment on the video:
    Bittman states boldly and early on that every scientist in the world now believes that global warming is real and dangerous. The way he continues from here make me think he also meant that all scientists believe that global warming is anthropogenic. This is a massive, massive generalisation which is obviously false and has put me off watching the rest. That and the visual linking of meat to atomic bombs even earlier in the talk.

    After a quick scan through the video, I notice that he thinks animals should be fed better if we’re going to eat them, but he still seems to think meat “will kill you”, which is totally wrong. The studies that claim red meat is bad are mostly observational (read, useless) and should have actually concluded that processed food is bad.

    It’s interesting that people try to reconcile their environmentalism with their outlook on health/nutrition by thinking that meat is unhealthy or unnecessary. The convenience of an argument that makes good health compatible with low carbon emissions makes me sure that many good-willed people take it up for unconsciously ideological reasons, as it gives them a cohesive world view and a clear path to positive change.

    I used to take the same view until I took a serious look at nutrition. However, it still leaves me the issue of environmental strain (not necessarily climate change related) of meat production. The only true solution in my opinion is a dramatic reduction in population, which I’m not sure is even possible without a collapse of our civilisation due to resource management just like most civilisations before it. Telling people to be green by not having kids, though, will not make you very popular and trying to decide yourself not to have children shows you how hard it is to overcome one of your most primal human instincts and emotions for large scale, abstract issues.

    • Rafe Furst

      From The China Study: “…if you know how much sunshine causes a slight redness of your skin, then one-fourth of this amount, provided two to three times per week, is more than adequate to meet our Vitamin D needs…” Where do you live that you can’t do this without uprooting your current life?

      And do you really expect anyone to buy the argument that we don’t know the full effect of eating lots of mushrooms and spinach and that it might be dangerous? Besides there are literally thousands of foods with Vitamin D. Part of my point was that for all of our “advancement” we are pathologically stuck in the mode of thinking “if a little is good for you, a lot is better”. A corollary of which is find one thing that meets one criteria and do that to the exclusion of everything else (the 99.99%).

      If you think about the evolutionary history of the human animal and the systemic complexity thereof, all of a sudden it seems ludicrous that the first thing we think of is to find a compound to put in our bloodstream to treat a symptom and worry about the “side effects” later. It’s all side effect. We have lost touch with the true nature of causality. And because it serves our many cherished myths (not to mention our short term desires and company profits), we quickly engage our extremely powerful rationalization machinery and call it rationality.

      I’m not trying to pick on you, but you articulate very well the faulty reasoning and rationalization that has gripped us in modern societies. For those reading this and have to make their own choices, ultimately it comes down to whose logic they believe is more sound.

      • TheQuickBrownFox

        I am of Indian origin with fairly dark, brown skin and I live in London. In winter months it gets dark before I leave work. Even if I am outside in the day, a lot of the light is blocked by buildings and not of enough intensity to cause significant vitamin D production in any colour skin never mind cause any redness. I could lie in a park naked all day and I’d go more blue than red! These are not unusual conditions for millions of people.

        Do you feel that the statement you quote there has any respect for the complexity you refer to later on? The reaction of a person’s skin to sunlight is affected by it’s previous exposure and the quality of fats in the person’s diet. I understand that most people burn much more easily than they should because of the omega-3/6 ratio in their diet, though even that is no doubt a gross simplification.

        And I don’t think it’s absurd that eating a lot of mushrooms and spinach could have unintended consequences. We probably evolved to get food from a wide variety of sources and it would be unusual to have such an abundance of just one or two. Any dietary intervention can have unintended consequences, especially since the evolution of the organisms we eat have been dramatically modified by agriculture.

        You’re right to call upon the complexity argument, but if you apply it in one place should you not apply it everywhere, including the areas of sunlight exposure and mushrooms? But applying the argument indefinitely can only eventually lead to the conclusion that we know nothing and therefore take no action. It is a matter of degree and it is indeed up to people to make their own choices. I was not calling for compulsory vitamin D supplements, just defending their use.

        Thanks for the responses. This has been interesting.

        • Rafe Furst

          Okay, but your latest comment seems quite different than your first: “All this considered, it might be helpeful to prescribe vitamin D across the board. Just like we are doing with statins now.”

          Your own situation brings up an important point, which is that when we are faced with decisions like these we are given averages, but we have to make the decision on a specific situation that is often far from average. Indeed, one measure of complexity is heterogeneity, so you might expect “your mileage to vary” from average to a greater degree, the more complex the system.

          And I do appreciate your getting into the details and making this a civil discussion. So often when one discusses diet and other lifestyle choices, it becomes quickly personal, emotional and ideological.

          • TheQuickBrownFox

            By the way, I forgot to mention:

            The plant version of vitamin D (D2) is much less effective than the animal version (D3). Spinach and mushrooms may not do much compared to fish oil (which good quality supplements are derived from).

            I post this for your own knowledge and benefit rather than to win an argument or get the last word!

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  • Ali

    Excellent point, Rafe. Particularly problematic is that with the pervasiveness of industrial food production at every point in the process, one concern has to be what %, if any, of our food is actually the way nature intended it. How many real carrots are out there anymore?

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  • Rafe Furst

    Regarding “the missing 99%” take a look at this recent gem, Sunglight may cut MS risk by itself