Go to any supermarket and you will see shelves upon shelves of ready-to-cook meals, canned food, ready-to-use fried onions, frozen vegetables and the like – all tempting you to save your time and try them out. At the same time, you might have heard that processed food is totally unhealthy, and you should avoid it as much as possible. So what should you do?
It is important to remember that virtually everything we eat is processed in some way or the other. Peeling, cutting, mashing, cooking, baking or frying is all referred to as food processing. All cooked food is, therefore, processed food. It doesn’t mean that all processed food is bad food. There is a huge difference between mechanical processing, which may be essential for making food eatable (such as peeling the bananas), heat processing that changes the texture and may change the nutritional value, but at the same time makes food more tasty and easily digestible, and chemical processing that is largely used by the industrial food manufacturers and which can turn good, natural ingredients into nutritionally worthless or even harmful products. Such chemically processed products are most commonly referred to as processed foods and must be avoided.
Processed foods are often made from highly refined ingredients, such as white flour, sugar, and margarine. While they all are rich in flavour, they do not represent the original taste of the food. The taste of processed foods is affected by a huge amount of sugar, salt, artificial flavours, and flavour enhancers that go into them. The chemically simple sugars found in cookies, sweets, juice drinks, and sodas give you an instant boost of energy, the ‘sugar rush’, but very soon you feel hungry again, craving for another sweet snack or drink to give you a boost.
You might wonder why there are artificial colours or flavours in products such as mango juice, when the fruit itself is already rich in colour and flavour. It is because due to exposure to heat or storage in the manufacturing process, the natural ingredients lose their natural colour compounds, and with it its vital nutrients. To mask the loss, producers are adding artificial colours and flavours, most of which are harmful for our health. Many of the artificial colorants are actually derived from processing coal tar, and their consumption has been linked to hypersensitivity reactions such as allergies, asthma, and ADHD in children.
Another problem with processed food is that the fat used in their production is usually of very bad quality, and consuming it can have serious consequences on health. This fat is often hydrogenated, which means that the producers add hydrogens to oils to solidify them and thus extend their shelf-life. But this process changes the healthy unsaturated fatty acids into trans-fats, a chemically different substance, the consumption of which has been shown to increase the level of LDL cholesterol, which in turns has been linked to an increase in risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
The abundance of easily available and easy-to-prepare foods is a trial (Fitnah) for all of us. It is important to remember that all the natural foods on earth are a blessing of Allah (swt). That’s why choosing good and natural ingredients is not only important for good health and well-being, it is also a righteous choice and an act of obedience to Allah (swt). It is always worth remembering that the food our Prophet (sa) ate was very simple. Processed food may be easier and more convenient, but it will never be better than real food.