I lecture nutrition to hundreds of aspiring personal trainers and fitness instructors every year. Literally hundreds of hours talking about carbs, fats, proteins (and alcohol), fad diets, metabolism and everything else that pertains to diets and nutrition. One of the most frequent topics that comes up in our discussions at the end of class is natural/ organic foods and processed foods and the extent of their effect on our health. This may be of interest to some of you. [reading time = less than 3 minutes]
Before we tackle this topic we need to think about how we would define ‘natural’?
When talking about food; to say that something occurs in nature and is therefore natural, is somewhat superficial.
Scientifically, the term organic refers to something that is carbon based or contains a carbon chain, usually alongside hydrogen, oxygen and/ or nitrogen. This term has been stolen by food companies and hippies to describe whether a food has been grown or reared ‘naturally’ or not.
Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are what make carbs, fat and proteins and all ‘organic’ molecules. For example, if it weren’t for carbon chains and their affinity for each other/ their ability to ‘stick’ to other elements then there would be no carbs, fats and proteins, no DNA, no cells, and no life.
That is why they are called ’organic’ elements.
If we follow the organic = natural assumption that has been pushed upon us lately, would anything that occurs in nature or naturally be deemed organic?
How about food/ vitamins that are made in a lab? Take vitamin C for example. Say you got X amount of Vitamin C from fruit and X amount of vitamin C that was synthesised in a lab. Which one is better? There is no basic test that can distinguish the two and similarly your body doesn’t not know the difference either.
It is the same for other ‘processed’ foods. I am on a flight as I write this and I’m pretty sure there are preservatives or something in my meal, but there are the same number of Kcal (Calories) as if there were no preservatives. So where do we draw the line?
What if it was grass fed organic beef? Aside from the fatty acid content, there is no REAL difference and herein lies the problem.
People really go out of their way to ruin their lives searching out ‘organic’ this and ‘unprocessed’ that and what it really REALLY comes down to is:
Are you getting in the right amount of carbs, fats and proteins (kcal’s) and does that array of food provide you with the right amount of vitamins, minerals and fibre*.
There is no aura or halo around the foods head if it is grown organically. Foods that are frozen or stored or genetically modified can also contain antioxidants and fibre. They can also provide energy and they don’t necessarily have any ill effects on the metabolism or the body in general.
Similarly, if natural means good, then shouldn’t natural be good for us? (think venom, hemlock, cyanide and heroin)
Even some highly processed foods are good for us. All organic, hippy, sun shines out of its backside, vegan protein is still PROCESSED to derive protein and amino acids from the source. Olive oil is processed. Cooking is processing. So unless you roll into a field and nail a leaf of lettuce straight out of the dirt, akin to how a snail would, then you are eating processed, preservative enriched foods.
Cooking food actually IMPROVES digestibility of food and reduces the chances of getting anything like cholera and other fun things like gastro-enteritis.
Starches, once cooked, are up to 20 times more bioavailable.
Cooking meat and food correlates well with an increase in brain size in human evolution. Whether that means that the brain grew and we discovered fire as a result. Or the fact we could eat more food as a result of cooking and therefore consumed more kcal’s and increased available food while decreasing bacterial infections and we developed bigger bodies and brains as a result. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions on that one. (hint: both of them suggest that cooking (processing) is a good idea)
All of the foods we are currently eating have been cultivated for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. They are NOT natural. They have been ‘bred’ or cultivated to look, smell and taste the way they do. Carrots, bananas and a whole array of different foods have been modified and cultivated over 1000s of years to be the way they are now.
That aside, if everyone was to eat organic, ‘natural’ foods all of the time it would literally cost hundreds of euro/week to feed yourself. They are probably slightly nutritionally superior but the return of interest (ROI) is negligible at best.
So I guess what I am saying is that most processing is completely harmless and has no effect on our health. The notion of ‘natural’ foods being better doesn’t really make sense. Simply washing food can rid the food of any pesticides present. Cooking food makes it safer and taste better. Hormones in foods are completely harmless as they are made up of fats and proteins and as a result they will be digested into their constituents along with everything else in the meal.
Deal with it
Bryan Kavanagh BSc CSCS
PS. This does not mean that tootsie rolls and microwaved dinners are good for you, I am just suggesting that you shouldn’t eliminate ‘packaged’ foods based solely on the fact that they are in a packet or that there are a few ingredients on the back that you can’t pronounce.
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