by Marion Nestle
Dec 5 2010

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: processed v. real foods

“Minimally processed food a health goal” is the title of today’s Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: I may be preaching to the choir here, but isn’t eating a variety of unprocessed (or at least minimally processed) foods the best way to make sure your diet is healthy?

A: Indeed it is, and processing is the healthful food movement’s new frontier. Processed is code for “junk” foods – foods of minimal nutritional value. These crowd the center aisles of supermarkets, add loads of unneeded calories, rely on added nutrients for health benefits, last forever on the shelves and generate enormous profits for their makers.

Sodas are the obvious examples. They have no nutrients (unless fortified), and all their calories come from added sugars.

The food industry will insist that practically everything you eat is processed in some way. Unprocessed foods are rare exceptions – fruits direct from the tree or vine, vegetables pulled from the ground, nuts from wherever they come from, and raw meat, fish, eggs or milk.

Everything else is at least minimally processed – washed, aged, dried, frozen, canned, pasteurized or cooked. But these cause little, if any, loss of nutritional value and make some nutrients more available to the body.

In contrast, more extreme processing changes foods. It reduces the nutritional value of basic food ingredients, adds calories from fats and sugars, and disguises losses in taste and texture with additives such as salt, colors, flavors and other chemicals. Manufacturers add vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3s and probiotics expressly to make health claims.

Manufacturers say they make the products to give you what you demand: cheap, easy-to-eat-anywhere foods that require no preparation and give you the tastes you love. They back these contentions with increasingly far-fetched health claims, billions of advertising dollars and lobbyists galore.

The big issue is “ultra-processing,” says Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Writing in the November issue of the online Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Monteiro ranks the effects of food processing on health as the most important issue in public health nutrition today.

Ultra-processed foods, he says, are the primary cause of the rapid rise in obesity and associated diseases throughout the world.

He charges the food industry with creating durable, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that are so palatable that they are habit-forming. And they are meant to be eaten everywhere – in fast-food places, on the street and while watching television, working or driving.

Ultra-processed foods are much higher in calories for their nutrients than unprocessed and minimally processed foods. They have loads of fat, sugars and salt, but are low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

They are often cheaper than relatively unprocessed foods, especially when sold in supersize portions at discounted prices. And they are often the only foods available in convenience stores or vending machines.

He notes that virtually unregulated advertising identifies ultra-processed foods and drinks as necessary – and, when nutrients are added, as essential – to modern lifestyles and health. Overall, Monteiro says, their high palatability, along with aggressive and sophisticated marketing, undermine the normal processes of appetite control and cause adults and children to overeat.

This is just another way of saying what former Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler says in his provocative book, “The End of Overeating.” Kessler argues that processed and fast foods high in fat, sugars and salt have turned us into a nation of “conditioned overeaters” unable to recognize hunger or satiety.

Current policies ensure that ultra-processed foods stay cheap, and it’s no accident that the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent since the 1980s, while the relative price of sodas and fast food has declined.

If you can afford it, choosing relatively unprocessed foods is good advice. As I wrote in “What to Eat,” it’s best to stick to the real foods around the supermarket perimeter. My only slightly facetious shopping rules: Avoid processed foods with more than five ingredients, ingredients you can’t pronounce, and those with cartoons on the package aimed at marketing to kids.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at, and read her previous columns at

This article appeared on page L – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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  • Anthro

    “Current policies ensure that ultra-processed foods stay cheap, and it’s no accident that the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent since the 1980s, while the relative price of sodas and fast food has declined.”

    Aha! I knew this, but couldn’t prove it. Thank you. My husband thinks I complain about the ever-increasing cost of fruits and veggies just to annoy him, so I’m glad to have a source on this!

    The other problem with fresh food is that it is continually bred to be bigger (more calories) and sweeter (more sugar, hence, more calories). I increasingly have to search wider for small size apples and oranges. I prefer the small ones to cutting things in half and having them turn brown or have to be put away–where the are often forgotten. Some of the onions have got so big, I call them “mutants”.

    Serving size is an issue, even if you are eating totally unprocessed. Calories add up, especially from fruit (for me anyway).

  • To try and address this exact need, CORE Foods is making a full meal in a package with only five to six simple ingredients that haven’t been processed, have no sugars or sweeteners, and don’t have preservatives or junk to make them last longer.

    The company’s entire push is to provide busy people the resources they need to keep from keep from sacrificing their health. for more information.

  • Subvert

    @Krista – why wouldn’t people just cook, or mix these 5-6 simple ingredients together themselves? I think this is where we need to go. The money, energy and extra waste going into packaging 5-6 simple things into another package that gets trucked off to another location or distribution point..? Why? And when the cost to the end customer is higher, because it’s “minimally processed”. People need to bring back a little sovereignty into their lives and stop relying so much on convenience items – therein might lie some solution.

  • Anthro


    Oh! We think so much alike–surely you are my evil twin!

  • @Subvert

    I definitely agree with you in theory…home gardens are the solution to most food ills! What I can tell you from running CORE is that when I was mixing these Meals myself in my own kitchen, it was costing me more than $3 in ingredient costs alone, and I was creating a lot of packaging waste from buying small packs of ingredients. Now we sell the Meals for practically that same price, I buy all my ingredients from farmers that I know and we melt our used packaging down to make other goods.

    I sincerely feel that much change can happen within the current food infrastructure and am trying my hardest to do so.

  • Anthro


    I checked out the site and can only say–HUH?

    This MIGHT be something to think about for an extreme athlete or serious backpackers, but to think a person would use this product as everyday food seems ridiculous! How about an apple and a carrot for “on the go” food? How about a bowl of oatmeal–Oh!, that takes FIVE minutes and a pan! A piece of whole wheat toast?–Oh! at least two minutes and a toaster! A banana? An orange–Oh!, you’d have to peel it! I’d say to put some peanut butter on the toast or to dip the banana into, but then I’d be asking busy people to get out a spoon and scoop the stuff onto the toast–oh no!

  • Lisa

    This is a little more directed to the social side of food.
    I think food culture in America has been sadly defined by how much we really value convenience. Yeah, sure, we have a lot of advantages with innovative technologies and new food processes. But also a lot of disadvantages. People value saving time, but not the time it takes to experience something. If we don’t invest our own time into something like food whether it be grocery shopping, going to farmers markets, preparing food with the family or with friends, then not only do we undermine the nutritional value of foods, but also the social value food has to offer in sustaining healthy relationships. Food is something the whole world has in common, and that’s a pretty rare thing.

  • so simple and so true.

  • Sam

    One of the issues we have is that as consumers in the grocery store we want all our apples, pepper, potatoes, etc to look exactly the same. The typical reaction to misshapen produce, is that something must be wrong with it, and we don’t but it. This leaves the farmer in a precarious situation, because he needs money but mother nature does not produce large amounts of perfectly formed fruit/vegetables free of blemishes. The farmer sorts out the “nice looking” produce and sells it for a high price to the consumer, and sells the rest to food companies who don’t care about the appearance, for much less in an attempt to break even. The price difference between the two outputs from the farm is so great, that the food companies can take the cheap produce, dissect it a million different ways, reassemble it, package it, and sell it as a replacement to the original for less than the “nice looking” fruit the farm sells. The economics are messed up, and it’s mostly due to government incentives which keep the price of the non-desirable produce so low. Until the incentives changes, and consumers stop being so visually picky (like some are learning with heirloom tomatoes which sometimes look scary but taste great), I don’t think we’ll a major change in eating patterns.

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  • Isn’t homogenized milk processed? I don’t think you can actually include milk in this group. Changing the molecular structure of a food seems like it’s being processed to me.

  • Jon

    I think it’s a question of what’s “processed”. I think boiling is generally good. So is baking. And you’d have to be an idiot to say that just slicing a tomato affects the nutritional content. Grilling reduces fat, usually a good thing on its own. (Replace that fat with a lot of carbohydrate, and you’ll at best break even, though.) Frying and stir-frying add fat, and salting adds salt (as does stir-frying), but no matter what you do in your home, it won’t make as much of a difference as otherwise. And an Irish coffee is nothing on the lethal caffeine/alcohol interaction scale compared to a Four Loko or Joost.

    Of course, I won’t insist on whole grain cookies, but I’ll treat cookies as a dessert. They’ve all got a lot of sugar in them, after all.

  • CLove

    Thanks for the article – I liked it.

    I was recently watching a documentary of some kind, unrelated to what stood out in my mind – I saw a woman bottle feeding formula to her infant. She was living on the Amazon River at one of those stops where there is actually electricity and coca-cola sold….hmmm coke and formula.

    We’re spreading our disease and it’s the babies who will suffer first.

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  • Jarrett

    I’m starting to think there’s a big difference between processed – you would or could do at home if you had the time – and manufactured foods. What you don’t have industrial grade stabilizers, preservatives and sweeteners in your house?

    Roasting coffee beans, natural peanut butter (ingredients: roasted peanuts), boxed egg whites, etc. These are all processed foods.

    Paleo is big right now, but I think it’s overkill. And I’m not a fan of any diet with no grains. I believe in going back in time with our food. But instead of 10,000 years, how about 100-200 years? Things our great-grandparents would have eaten. This is what I’m doing at the grocery store now: “Did this, and everything in it, exist before WW 1?”