Christmas – an opportunity to eat REAL food, but what is the problem with Processed Foods ……Explained!

With Christmas fast approaching we have an opportunity to eat ‘real’ food, cooked from scratch. This is far more healthy and nutritious than the junk foods many of us are tempted with throughout the rest of the year. Supermarket shelves are heaving with Processed Foods. If you don’t want to put cow’s milk in your cuppa, there are loads of alternatives derived from plants, but are these processed offerings as healthy as they look?

What is processed food?

“Most of the food we eat is processed,” says Dr Giles Yeo, an obesity expert at Cambridge University. Cooking is a process; fermentation is a process. “Processed Foods however are a modern phenomenon in which they need to be industrially made, so these are processes which we cannot replicate in our kitchen.”

Processed Foods tend to be low in protein and fibre and high in salt, sugar and fat. For example, it might be taking a chicken carcass, forcing it through a sieve to extract every last morsel of meat and tendon and then reforming the resulting ‘white slime’ into a chicken nugget. “It’s this industrial process of extrusion,” Giles explains.

What is the real problem with processed foods?

“The problem with these types of foods,” says Giles, “is that they are stripped of protein and fibre and because they are so processed, they lack flavour, so you have to create it by adding salt, sugar and fat. Processed Foods tend to be low in protein and fibre and high in salt sugar and fat. That is the problem.”

This also makes them ‘hyper-palatable’. Of the calories we eat today, in high income countries like the UK, 50-60% come from Processed Food. “In countries which have more processed foods, there is an increase in obesity and other diet related illnesses,” says Giles.

Interestingly, when we think about Processed Foods, we tend to think about burgers and hotdogs, but Processed Foods are pretty much everything with a label on it, designed to stay on a shelf or freezer for up to a year or more. By the time we get to open the product and consume it, what may originally have some small nutritional advantage, by the time we get to eat it, it will be devoid of nutritional value meaning that we need to eat more ‘proper’ food for our body to thrive from vitamin and minerals in ‘fresh’ produce. 

What is Processed Food?

“Ultimately, meat and fish are never going to be a Processed Food, because they are a single ingredient food,” explains Sophie Medlin, Dietician and Chair of the British Dietetic Association for London.

Vegans who only eat plant-based products are seduced by an ever-increasing range of processed options as well. The reality is that these are no better and could potentially be worse than the meat and dairy options. 

“When we get into trying to replicate them from plant products, we are definitely going to have to process them in order for them to look and feel and taste in any way palatable. The more you are trying to make something imitate something that it’s not, the more processing it is going to have to go through.”

Beware protein substitutes that contain little to no protein

“A lot of the higher tech immitation meat burgers tend to be made with mung bean protein or peas and those will have protein,” says Giles.

They may be more processed than the basic Quorn products (which are mainly made from fungus) or things like tofu, but some protein is present.

However, other ingredients used to imitate meat tell a different story. Jackfruit is sold as a vegan substitute for pulled-pork, for instance.

The issue here is that “Jackfruit contains nearly no protein whatsoever,” states Giles. If you choose vegan pulled-pork for your main dish and don’t replace the protein elsewhere, you end up having a meal with very little protein. Let’s not get carried away with the protein argument, since if a vegan eating a good range of fresh produce, especially leafy greens, will not have any problem with getting enough protein.

Are plant-based milks processed?

On most supermarket shelves you will now find soya milk, coconut milk, almond and oat milk – and that’s just scratching the surface. Are these alternative milks processed? Should we be thinking twice about drinking them? When switching to a plant-based milk, make sure it’s fortified with the right vitamins and minerals. “Some are certainly better than others and some have gone through more processing in order to get them there,” says Sophie. Soya milk is a side-product from making tofu and it’s high in protein. Coconut milk is just squeezed out of coconuts. Almonds do contain fat and some level of protein. “It is when you start to get to the oat and the quinoa milks that we get into some real ultra-processing,” says Sophie. “They are soaked in order to extract the white colour and fat is added (normally rapeseed oil) because neither contains fat naturally. Iron and minerals are added and the entire thing is emulsified, so ‘fortified’ milks will be a better choice.

Professor Susan Lanham-New, Head of Nutrition Sciences at Surrey University, has been investigating how good these milks are for us. She says the most important thing when switching to a plant-based milk, is to make sure it’s fortified with the right vitamins and minerals. We need Vitamin D to absorb calcium and to ensure we don’t get deficient in the winter. “Cow’s milk contains very little vitamin D, but  plant milk manufacturers have started to add vitamin D, so for some products, you will actually be getting more vitamin D than you would in cow’s milk,” she says.

Should we be eating processed vegan and vegetarian foods, or steering clear?

“When you have plant-based or vegan foods, what you are having less of, is saturated fats,” says Giles. “These bad artery-clogging fats tend to come from animal-based products, so by eating any plant-based foods, processed or not, you will be consuming less. From that perspective, it is going to be healthier.”

Processed Foods in general are still lower in fibre and inherently higher in sugar, salt and fat – saturated and unsaturated, so from that perspective, processed vegan and plant-based foods are still processed foods, but could be healthier. Crucially, it matters what you would have been eating instead. If you are someone who ate a lot of red meat – particularly in the form of processed foods like burgers, sausages and chorizo and have moved to eating veggie versions – it’s going to be an improvement! 

“It’s great that these products are now available and everyone should be able to benefit from the convenience without compromising their ethics”, says Sophie, “but it’s become much easier to be a very unhealthy vegan.”

What should we have in the back of our minds when we’re doing our weekly shop?

Buy as must fresh produce as you can. If you buy other products, keep it simple. Choose nuts, seeds, dark chocolate or oats to make your own flapjacks etc. These do not go through heavy processing.  If the label is showing a ton of unpronounceable names in the ingredients, this is a warning flag that it contains very little nutritional value. Unpronounceable names means piling on more unwanted pounds. These toxins are stored as fat and the body finds it more and more difficult to shift these as we age, causing inflammation and possibly bigger health issues. “Anything that’s whole-wheat or whole-grain is going to have more fibre,” says Giles. “Taking the chocolate bar example; anything with nuts is going to be higher protein; anything with more dried fruit is going to be higher in fibre. We need to have a better display of nutrition so that people can walk into a supermarket and make the choices they need to make, particularly on foods that are imitation meat.”

Easy rules of thumb

“If you fancy a chocolate bar or a lasagne or a frozen pizza, try and pick the ones with the least amount of peculiar looking names and have the lowest amounts of sugar and salt” says Giles. 

Wishing all my monthly readers a happy healthy-eating Christmas. Thank you all those who asked for my eBook over the past year. It is still free to all Costa Cálida Chronicle readers by emailing me at