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Real Food 101: What’s So Bad About Additives & Preservatives, Anyway?

August 24, 2015 6 min read

It's no secret there's a political side to this whole Real Food movement. We've read about quite a few people dismissing it out-of-hand as a sort of agrarian fantasy of the far-left, what organic food was before it became much bigger business. And hey, sometimes those criticisms have their place. Any time people stand up and say the way an entire continent (and increasingly, world) produces and consumes its food is fundamentally broken, you're going to have some people defending the status quo. It's normal, and even if we don't agree with the criticisms, there's nothing wrong with a little debate!

A Question: Is the 'real food' movement left, or right, or neither?

Where real food shines is that it's actually, at heart, quite a conservative movement (in certain ways). Its main proponents tend to be to the left in their political orientation, but anyone who's seen the documentary Food, Inc. or read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma will know that one of the film's/book's stars, Joel Salatin, is definitely not left-wing in many beliefs. This is what makes this movement great — its intentions are beyond politics, and move towards spending time, effort, and consciousness on what you put on your plate and into your stomach every day. But given all that, there's one other criticism that seems to come up quite regularly, and one that we've found ourselves having occasionally too. And it's this — why, exactly, are additives, supplements, and processed substances apparently so bad for us?  

I mean, they do test these things, right?

Yes — no food additive, in general, goes into a product until it undergoes extensive testing. No matter how insane-sounding the substance, if it's fundamentally bad for you (i.e., poisonous), there isn't really much of a chance you'll find it in your breakfast cereal. Take high-fructose corn syrup, for example. Fundamentally, it contains the same properties as sugar, and functions exactly like it. When it was discovered, it became a fantastic way for companies like Coca-Cola to instantly save millions, as subsidized corn (at least in the USA) could produce a substance equal to sugar, for far less money. And it's true — even real food guru Michael Pollan admits it — there's nothing fundamentally wrong with high fructose corn syrup as a substance, on its own. Like sugar, it's used to sweeten things. Same goes for many other substances — MSG, guar gum, and all the other things you'll find in a typical processed product. What's wrong with them, exactly? Why do we have to stick to 'whole' and 'natural' foods? They're full of chemical compounds, too, and farmers have been 'modifying' seeds and trees for hundreds of years — why is this any different, or more dangerous?

Is there one simple explanation for this?

It's an interesting question. If you've embarked on a mission to start eating 'real food', you'll probably get that question quite a bit. Is there a way to explain it easily? Especially if you're talking to a scientist, or a chemist, or someone like that, you might be pressed to explain — what, exactly, is the problem with a product containing 15 ingredients? It's edible, no? Nothing in it will kill us or destroy our internal organs? Why this endless focus on real food? With that in mind, we researched and thought about the two answers we think are the most convincing and useful.

First — no one has ever eaten these things before, let alone in such an insane combination.

This one is a traditional argument, but it works — while our prior generations, our ancestors, have been eating certain foods for many, many generations, and reaping their effects on the human body, this notion of eating heavily refined, processed foods full of synthetic additives is actually a very recent one. When a huge percentage of all our foods no longer contain what they originally contained, but instead are made out of elements of other foods (mainly corn and soy), broken down, super-heated, and then re-combined in a laboratory somewhere, it not only becomes near-impossible to keep track of what we're putting into our bodies, but there is nobody of scientific or even practical knowledge that suggests this is a sustainable, healthy, or useful diet. It won't kill us, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the best way to get the nutrients we need, either.

Why do we have to eat so much corn?

A huge percentage of the average McDonalds meal, for example, will contain corn. But it'll contain corn in so many different varieties — in the corn syrup used to sweeten the coke and the bun, in the corn feed used to feed the cow who eventually makes up the big mac, or in about 45% of the chicken McNugget, which, after getting through the processing to help the food last longer, is made from chicken fed entirely on corn. So what? Well, it means that if you're eating a diet heavy in processed foods, you are eating refined corn a huge amount of the time. No one society has really done that before. Plenty of people have survived on actual corn, but that's not what we're eating here. This is corn, broken down and reassembled in thousands of ways, for the sake of economics. This kind of diet, mixed with an overall decrease in physical activity, seems to be a disaster for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates.

Second — they cause the body to do strange, unpredictable things.

When we eat a piece of actual corn, there is a pretty solid amount of research that shows (to an extent) what it does to the body. Same with most other 'real' foods. Certain vitamins go to receptors in our cells, antioxidants start to take effect, and the actual container of 'real food' has a ton of benefits. A carrot is a delivery system for beta-carotine and a lot of other things. Sure, we can take a pill to get some of the same substances, but it's hard to prove they have the same effect, and somewhat unnecessary. Take another example — orange juice. A lot of the vitamins have to be re-added to orange juice, because they're lost in the juicing process — you'll only get them if you eat an actual orange itself. Same goes for other products — when you buy some kind of green tea infused with omega 3, you're not getting that 'omega 3' in anywhere near its original context. Sure, you're still getting it, but not in its naturally occuring container.

So what?

Well — this has strange effects on the body. When fat is kept in a product, for example (say, a potato chip that's higher in calories than a 'low-fat' one full of additives), it can often help the various vitamins and other products to be properly absorbed (maybe a potato chip isn't the best example here...) When you start chemically removing these things from their original context, you then have to add new things in order to get your food-like-substance to function as it once did. And really — why bother? Real foods are all around us, cost less (environmentally, at least, but that's another article) to manufacture, and have kept humans healthy for hundreds of years. But that's the final point of this whole Real Food movement — there's another, simpler way, and it's one that our grandparents used, and one that many people around the world still subscribe to, and it's one that can let us escape from the knowledge overload, the endless supplmenets, additives, boosters, and all that marketing that's supposed to make us healthier. Why do we need to know that a sugary breakfast cereal might possibly be good for our hearts, in excruciating, complicated detail? We don't. It's just another way to confuse us into buying something that isn't real food.

There's still lots more to say!

One thing about Real Food, as you might have noticed, is that there's a lot to talk about, a lot to think about, and several different angles to consider. Every time I sit down to talk and write about it, I keep coming up with more and more to say, more questions, more inquiries, more avenues of discussion. This article started about one small subject (are additives really that bad?), but ended up touching on several! So now I want to push it over to you — what are some of your questions when it comes to 'real' food? I've seen a few of them asked here and there in the comments, but now we want you to get specific. Are you curious about organic food? About why corn-fed beef isn't as good as grass-fed? What are we supposed to do if we live in cold countries, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, during the winter? For a diet plan that will help you navigate some of these difficult questions, check out the BodyRock Meal Plan. Not just a menu planner, this plan comes with a detailed nutrition guide and a recipe book that contains over 70 recipes!

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