5 reasons to cut back on processed foods
The easiest, and yet most profound, way to reduce our impact on the world? That’s right… change what we eat. Whether it’s choosing to eat less meat and dairy, buying organic produce where possible or simply by using up what we have before buying more, a long-term switch to eating greener creates positive knock-on effects for the whole planet.
Eating greener is the easiest way for us to reduce our impact on the world
But what about processed foodstuffs? All those ready-to-eat and microwaveables, snack-sized and sharing packs, vacuum packaged and boxed, pre-prepared and frozen, boil-in-the-bag and tin-in-the-oven, tubed, bagged, rolled, squeezed, dehydrated, concentrated, pre-mixed, sugar-coated and freeze-dried products? Do convenience foods fit into the greener eating picture? Generally the answer is no and here are five reasons why...
1. Plastic packaging
Did you know that the moulded black plastic trays sported by a lot of ready meals are incredibly difficult to recycle? The sensors at recycling plants can’t identify and sort black plastic due to the carbon pigment reflecting little or no light, so these food trays end up in waste-to-energy recovery if we’re lucky and landfill or the oceans if we’re unlucky.
While veggie food company Quorn and supermarkets Waitrose and Iceland have pledged to phase out black plastic from their products, that still leaves us with the majority of ready meals being sold in non-recyclable film and black plastic packaging. Avoid!
2. Poor quality ingredients
When we make a meal from scratch, we choose precisely what we want to eat. We can look for bargains and help cut food waste by choosing wonky veg or discounted short-dated produce. We can buy according to our values on animal welfare – organic, free-range or grass-fed – and on the environment – sustainable fish, pesticide-free fruit and locally grown veggies, for just a few examples.
While it is possible to find processed food made from carefully-sourced ingredients, as a general rule the manufacturers’ interests lie not with providing quality food but in the bottom line.
We are talking the very poorest quality ingredients, nutrition-free “fillers” that would never feature in a standard recipe, colourings and flavourings to replace more expensive ingredients, flavour enhancers to replace actual cooking processes, not to mention artificial sweeteners and massive amounts of sugar and salt – all topped off with a dose of preservatives.
3. Rainforest-destroying palm oil
Hands up who’s cooked with palm oil? Practically no one? Well, you’ve almost certainly eaten it. The most widely consumed vegetable oil on Earth, palm oil features in a huge number of packaged products sold in supermarkets, including pizzas, bakery products, biscuits and cookies, ice cream and margarine.
Palms are primarily grown on land cleared of tropical rainforest and the uncontrolled expansion of plantations for quick profit is destroying irreplaceable ancient woodlands, the habitat of thousands of endangered species including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos.
Uncontrolled palm oil plantation expansion threatens thousands of endangered species
Check the label! Palm oil can be listed as: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate or Palmityl Alcohol
4. High water footprint
It’s not just about the water that irrigates fields of crops; every aspect of processed food production uses up precious fresh water.
Cleaning and sanitation at every step takes water. The fuel in the transportation lorries is refined in processes that use water. The energy that powers the food factories along with the making of the machinery itself – all produced using methods that require water. The cardboard containers, plastic film and moulded trays? You guessed it! All are made in processes that utilise copious amounts of water.
This hidden water usage – billions upon billions of litres of water a year – gives processed food a much higher water footprint than the home-prepared equivalent.
5. Fresh just tastes better
Choosing fresh ingredients over processed foodstuffs doesn’t only reduce plastic waste, improve the nutrition we get from our food, help to preserve vital wildlife habitats across the world and cut our water footprints… no, we also get to enjoy much, much tastier food!
If your tendency has been to rely on processed foods for quick meals when time is running short, know that there are plenty of ways to put together good fresh food with a minimum of fuss:
>> Batch cooking ideas – it only takes a couple of hours to prepare two-weeks’ worth of homemade meals
>> Jamie Oliver’s classic 15-minute meals
>> Three-ingredient recipes that anyone can make