Which processed foods are better than natural?

The language used to describe the foods we eat can have a huge effect on how we perceive them: “organic”, “artisan”, “homemade” and “handpicked” foods sound slightly more tempting than the prosaic “tinned”, “rehydrated” or “freeze-dried”. Another adjective that can whet our appetites is “natural”, while we tend to associate […]

The language used to describe the foods we eat can have a huge effect on how we perceive them: “organic”, “artisan”, “homemade” and “handpicked” foods sound slightly more tempting than the prosaic “tinned”, “rehydrated” or “freeze-dried”.

Another adjective that can whet our appetites is “natural”, while we tend to associate “processed” food with long lists of ingredients we can’t pronounce. But when it comes to our health – is natural always better than processed?

Actually, naturalness doesn’t automatically mean a food is healthy, says Christina Sadler, manager at the European Food Information Council and researcher at the University of Surrey.

In fact, natural foods can contain toxins, and minimal processing can in fact make them safer.

Kidney beans, for instance, contain lectins, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. They’re removed by soaking the beans in water overnight and then cooking them in boiling water.

Processing also makes cow’s milk safe to consume. Milk has been pasteurised since the late 1800s, in order to kill harmful bacteria. Before this time, it was distributed locally, because there wasn’t good refrigeration in houses.

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“Cows in cities were milked every day, and people would bring milk in carts back to their neighbourhoods to sell it,” says John Lucey, food science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“As cities got bigger, milk got further away and took longer to get to the consumer, which meant pathogens could multiply.”

Mounting evidence suggesting that some organisms in milk could be harmful led to the development of heating devices for milk and the invention of pasteurisation, which was soon adopted across Europe, and later in the US.

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