By Kayode Ojewale
MOST times we are compelled to take a close look at what we consume only when we are ill or when the body begins to show strange symptoms. Sometimes, we adhere strictly to taking some special kinds of foods when we are medically advised to do so. However, we may be doing our bodies a huge disservice if we fail to monitor what we take in as food on regular basis. Our daily diet can either be medicine or toxin to our bodies; it all depends on the composition of that food we take.
Any food product that is chemically treated in order to stay preserved is regarded as a processed food item. It becomes processed when preserved with chemicals so as to increase its shelf-life.
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Food and health specialists world over have strongly and unequivocally advocated the consumption of fewer processed foods if it cannot be totally avoided. Sometimes, even foods labeled as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ must have been processed. So, it may, in reality, not be possible to completely eliminate processed food from our diets, but we can minimise how much of it we consume. The reason is not far-fetched because the freshness and nutrients of some food items are locked and retained only when preserved. Consuming ultra-processed foods leads to serious health issues like obesity, heart diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure. Also, preservatives, chemical additives and other artificial ingredients present in processed foods alter the functional activities of that food in the body.
Some food experts have argued that those who habitually consume large quantities of processed meats are at a high risk of developing colorectal cancer (colon cancer). They say, it is either the chemicals used in preserving these meats, or the cooking processes which raise the risks of exposure to cancer. Processed meats are generally found in sausage, bacon, hotdogs and other forms of meat products that are preserved with additives. Red meats like beef and pork have also been suspected to raise the risk of cancer. Generally, processed foods are usually fortified with fiber, vitamins, minerals and other additivesbecause they lack natural nutritional contents since they have been stripped of these basic nutrients.
The seven common additives which have been identified by food specialists and researchers to be abundantly found in processed foods are: emulsifiers, glucose, salt, gluten, organic solvents, microbial transglutaminase and nanoparticles.
How then do we differentiate heavily processed food from the minimally processed one since we can’t completely do away with it? Simple! Check the label of the packaged food item. The longer the list of ingredients, the more heavily processed it is. So, it would be safe to infer that a ready-made food is heavily processed if the listed ingredients are mostly chemical names (not natural). The fewer the additives used the safer that processed food.
Although processed foods are easier and quicker to digest than the unprocessed ones due to lower calories in the former, nutritionists still recommend natural fresh meals as our diets. Processing of foods may improve or preserve the nutritional values that could be lost during storage, but it may at the same time damage the nutrients too. However, these benefits are no justifications to settle for processed foods in one’s diet because the health risks and disadvantages far outweigh the advantages.
It will be recalled that sometime last year, Nigerians were warned of the inherent dangers in consuming rotten tomatoes in order to forestall cancer. The red flag was issued by a Deputy Director with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC. Also, in the same year, the Food and Drug Agency, through its boss, raised an alarm on the risks of consuming fruits ripened with calcium carbide (a chemical that can pose various health hazards if consumed). She informed Nigerians then that the consumption of carbide-ripened fruits can cause organ failure, cancer and even death. Instead of allowing the natural ripening process to take place, some unscrupulous farmers and fruits merchants,in order to meet high market demands,hasten the ripening by applying carbide.
The other day, we read in a press statement, issued by NAFDAC, on how farmers in the country were warned against the dangerous practice of wrong application of agrochemicals on agricultural commodities for storage and preservation purpose. The public alert was consequent upon some video clips which went viral showing some food vendors spraying sniper pesticide directly on beans to preserve it.
NAFDAC has not failed this time around in bringing the attention of citizens to the kind of food they consume in a bid to safeguard the health of the general public.The Director-General of NAFDAC, Professor MojisolaAdeyeye, recently cautioned Nigerians to pay attention to what they eat. Professor Adeyeye added that processed foods are killer foods because most of them contain excess sugar, salt and Monosodium Glutamate. As alternatives to processed foods, she suggested the consumption of plenty fruits, vegetables and other natural foods to maintain sound and healthy living. In the words of the DG: “Food security is important to us. The natural foods we eat contain a lot of natural bio-actives and antioxidants. But many times, we don’t pay attention to what we eat.” The NAFDAC boss further said that the belief by many that the addition of more seasonings, spices or condiments to food to sweeten it or make it tastewell, is what sends many to early graves. We will be doing our bodies a great deal of good if we heed this warning bell from the NAFDAC boss.
We all can adopt a healthy lifestyle and keep medical ailments at bay if the body is fed with more of unprocessed, natural or fresh foods. Consumption of highly processed foods denies the body of some vitamins and sensitive nutrients needed for proper body functioning and good health. Precautionary or anticipatory measures taken now to regulate the intake of processed foods will go a long way to prevent us from health risks that may arise from consuming these foods.
Consumption of diets high in processed contents may lead to life-threatening health consequences and will ultimately hasten one’s journey to the grave. When we religiously and consciously monitor what we consume, we make our diets work for us and not against us.
*Ojewale, a public affairs analyst, wrote via firstname.lastname@example.org.