You Think You Know What Is Processed Food? Think Again!

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Part 6: Processed Food, Cycling and Endurance Sports

No matter to which school of diets, eating habits, etc. you subscribe to, processed foods have entered our lives, or more like have barged in the front door and made themselves at home. As much as the food industry giants try to convince you – the consumer – to leave it to the professionals, there might be something they are not readily disclosing. What is actually in all those shiny boxes on the store shelves? [amazon text=I was prepared to know the answer&asin=0008157855]…

Might Contain Traces of Nuts…

Ever wondered why almost every food item has some kind of warning that it might contain traces of nuts and/or might be coming from a factory where nuts are processed, even though you were probably looking at a tomato puree. The company just covering their behinds in our modern litigation happy society says you? You are probably 5% right. If you ever try to find where the stuff in your supermarket is actually made or what is the function this strange sounding ingredient in your cereal, you would come to a dead end. You would get pre-scripted answers and if you are brave enough to go and find stuff out for yourself you won’t be able to. This is why processing food factories are drab, non attention drawing buildings with no windows. To get an entrance inside the world of food processing you need to pass a ‘background check,’ be an industrial chemist, possibly specialising in polymers, however, having anything to do with food is not required, not even close. It doesn’t have to be because none of the equipment and ingredients you would be using have anything to do with food.


If you re about to cook something  you start with the ingredients list and from there you can vary the sugar, maybe add some butter, add a personal touch of this or that spice, in the end you have cooked a pie. If you are to make that same pie in industrial setting some of the thoughts that would go through your head would sound more like: How do I make a pie-like product? All natural products such as fruit, milk, butter etc. are expensive and go bad. Therefore how can I use less of each yet still come up with an identical buttery nutty taste. Low calories is the new black so how can I reduce the sugar and claim a ‘healthy option’ yet don’t take away any of the flavor profile. What other stuff do I use to that the pie filling remains appetisingly moist for 1 month, maybe even 3? Can’t I just use a chemical substitute that plays nice with the production cycle and get away with all the natural ingredients that stick to the factory equipment anyway causing a huge mess?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. When I first opened Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This[amazon text=Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This&asin=0008157855], I wasn’t expecting to find anything that new, I did study quite a bit of biochemistry both in college and afterwards. Boy was I mistaken…

Why it Always Tastes The Same

Variation is the sworn enemy of anybody involved in factory processes and it is the defining feature of any meal cooked from scratch. Since you can’t have that, just like making a car the whole process is broken down to basic steps. As with any recipe it indeed starts with the ingredients, however, that is where much of the similarity between food and processed food ends. Everything comes frozen from everywhere around the world; chopped up to specs and ready to use. No time to deal with premixing spice when you can get a ready mix to marinate in just minutes instead of waiting overnight.

From water-injected poultry and powdered coagulated egg, to ultra-adhesive batters and pre-mixed marinades, the raw materials in industrial food manufacturing are rarely as simple as most of us would like to think. In fact, they commonly share quite complicated back-stories of processing and intervention that their labels don’t reveal. Indeed, they are predicated on ingredients that are processed, comprised versions of the real thing, far removed from their original forms.
The undisclosed hidden history of their ingredients helps explain why ready meals manufactured in factories cannot hold a candle to the competently homemade equivalent, prepared in a domestic or restaurant kitchen. It also sheds light on why supposedly different ready meals from different retailers taste so similar.

Something particularly worrisome caught my attention straight away

Described by one company that makes it as ‘a powdery, homogeneous and free-flowing cream to yellow powder’, it is manufactured by spray-drying a mixture of butter, maltodextrins (starch) and milk proteins; a real boon to manufacturers who want an up-market ‘made with butter’ promise on their product label, but who don’t want to fork out for the real thing.

Basically in the end it comes down to standardisation and profit, cooking and health are not even on the table.

The Process

But how does it all work? Most food processing factories rarely have ‘open doors’ day and the less the general public knows what goes inside the better. The people in charge know what they are doing, they are the professionals. Yet with high certainty anybody involved in food preparation would find a food processing factory a completely foreign environment.

For their part, the food-factory boss men, who have nice, bright, clean offices with lots of windows, upstairs, or in another building, talk not of ‘food’, but of ‘product’. The word ‘cooking’ doesn’t come into it; they use the more honest term: ‘manufacture’. Industry top brass refers not to ingredients, but ‘food ingredient technology’ and ‘food ingredients systems’. Their vocabulary speaks volumes about how companies view the job in hand.

Keeping it all running like clockwork takes ridiculous amounts of internal audits and long paper trails tracing back to every part of factory equipment. Even so mistakes happen and product recalls occur sometimes multiple per day (you can check your local health regulatory authority’s page). Also since a factory might produce one product during the day shift and something else during the night shift, cross contamination is always a problem and that is why warning labels about nuts and other allergens appear on virtually everything, even if said nuts have no place in canned tomato soup for example.

“But I do Check the Labels for Chemicals!”

As a health conscious and well educated consumer, you dutifully check the food labels for the evil E numbers and convoluted chemical since they represent a highly processed food. However, like anything the industry is adapting.

In practical terms, what this means is that even if you are a thoughtful eater, someone who diligently inspects product labels, food manufacturers are always one step ahead of you. In fact, if you are still fretting about E numbers, you are way behind the curve. That was food awareness reading book number one; now we are on to reading book number two.

Volume 2 is what the industry has been referring to as ‘clean labelling.’ E numbers and chemical formulas have given way to ‘functional’ ingredients such as E1422 also known as acetylated distarch adipate is now called ‘functional starch.’ As well as ‘natural (organic) extracts’ such as rosemary extract are clean label substitute for antioxidants (E300-21) that prolong the life of products/serve as preservatives. However, they couldn’t be further from the aromatic herb they came from, they are not there as a flavor enhancer. They were extracted with very dangerous chemicals such as hexane to name one.  Furthermore processing aids that help during the production, however, do not appear in the final product do not need to be listed – the food processing industry is like Las Vegas – what happens there, stays there and the compounds involved are quite suspiciously disturbing.

An Ocean of Possibilities

Hiding behind all of the above the chemistry that is used to make the gray and unappetising food that has gone through high temperature and other aggressive treatments comes in palettes and ‘industrial solutions’ to create/mimic sweet and/or fat, to add colours, make the dry meat seems juicy by injecting it with water and starches and to modify it with enzymes and ultimately to package/cover the food so it looks like you would want to eat it while preserving it fresh for a looooong time. Nothing from that list would find it’s way in your kitchen….nothing.


“Leave it to the professionals” and you relax and enjoy yourself. Cooking has been labelled as a punishment and as slavery for the modern progressive person. Who has time for that? The responsibility for something that brought families together for centuries has been given to big industry that has only one thing in mind and that is profit.  Joanna Blythman’s book – [amazon text=Swallow This: Serving Up the Food’s Industry Darkest Secrets&asin=0008157855] is an eye-opener of a read on what goes on behind the places with no windows with entry reserved only for industry insiders. The most fitting moral of the book is as stated by Joanna Blythman herself:

These days, cooking is a powerful political statement, a small daily act of resistance that gives us significantly more control of our lives.

No better day to take responsibility of what you eat than today! The scary part is that what you and me as the conscious consumer knew about processed food is already old news and has been for some time. Therefore we need to keep educating ourseleves. In short I would like to close with Prof. Tim Noakes words:

Real food is something that was alive quite recently.

Stay tuned for the last instalment of the Cycling nutrition Series where I will include recipes and cooking tips for even the biggest kitchen novices.

Featured Image (Source)


[amazon text=The Real Meal Revolution&asin=1472135695] – Prof. Tim Noakes, Sally-Ann Creed, Jonno Proudfoot, David Grier

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=1472135695]

[amazon text=Swallow This: Serving the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets&asin=0008157855] – Joanna Blythman

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=0008157855]

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