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Whole vs. Processed Foods

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If you choose processed foods over whole grains, you cheat yourself of nutrients and increase your risk of obesity and degenerative disease. White bread, white rice and white pasta.

If you choose processed foods over whole grains, you cheat yourself of nutrients and increase your risk of obesity and degenerative disease.

White bread, white rice and white pasta. That's the food line-up for grain products shown on Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating. (The guide recommends five to 12 servings a day for people aged four and over.)

On the illustrated diagram published by Health Canada, only two items, a bagel and a loaf of bread, look as if they might have been baked with whole-meal flour. A note underneath them reads: "Choose whole grain and enriched products more often." According to the guide, most of our daily foods should come from the grain group.

If Canadians follow the food guide and take most of their nourishment from white, refined breads, rice and pasta, it's no wonder that obesity is rising at an alarming rate. Refined carbohydrates are "empty calories" that not only rob nutrients but also stimulate insulin production, thus promoting fat storage. In May 2002, Statistics Canada reported that between 1994-95 and 2000-01, the percentage of Canadian adults considered obese increased by 24 per cent. Even the greater physical activity registered by Canadians during this period could not make up for the damage caused by a diet consisting mostly of refined foods.

Obesity is not only a problem in itself; it also increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other degenerative conditions, including cancer. All these health conditions are on the rise in North America and in developed countries worldwide. Refined foods are turning us into an overweight, sick people. Choosing whole grain products "more often" is not enough, and "enriched" grain products are simply refined foods to which a few synthetic vitamins and minerals have been added in a feeble attempt to replace the complex composition of phytonutrients removed during refining. The term "impoverished" would more accurately represent their nutritional value than the misleading term "enriched."

Refined foods are turning us into an overweight, sick people. Choosing whole grain products 'more often' is not enough, and 'enriched' grain products are simply refined foods to which a few synthetic vitamins and minerals have been added.

What's in a Grain Kernel?

A grain kernel consists of three parts: the innermost germ, the endosperm that surrounds the germ and the bran that envelops both. Most of the kernel's nutrients are locked into the germ and bran. Whole grain products, therefore, provide us with the full nutrient content of the grain kernel. In the production of "refined" grain products, however, modern high-speed, high-heat roller mills strip away the germ and bran, leaving only the starchy endosperm, which is then ground into flour of varying consistencies.

What's left after refining contains less than 25 percent of the grain kernel's magnesium and zinc and barely a trace of vitamin E. All other nutrients, including the B-complex vitamins, are also severely reduced. Many Canadians chronically lack vitamin E, an important antioxidant shown to have heart-protective and rejuvenating properties. By eating refined grain products, we deprive ourselves of one of the most important food sources of this important nutrient. B vitamins are required for the proper breakdown of carbohydrates. If they are absent from a carbohydrate food, as in refined grain products, the body cannot properly metabolize the food. It is important to note that a whole food, such as a whole-grain kernel, naturally contains all substances required for its assimilation and metabolism. When these have been stripped away through refining, the refined food draws on the body's own store of vitamins, minerals and enzymes for its metabolization, gradually depleting and weakening the body.

Adding a handful of synthetic vitamins and minerals to "enrich" refined food does nothing to avert the damage. In fact, some researchers believe that synthetic nutrients in isolation are toxic and lead to tissue damage. We know, for instance, that all B-complex vitamins function synergistically, yet only three (thiamin, riboflavin and niacin) are typically added to "fortified" grains.

Another vital constituent of whole plant foods is fibre, an indigestible carbohydrate that increases bulk and softness of fecal matter. In essence, fibre ensures that the food cleans up after itself as the body metabolizes it; it acts as a natural cleanser, helping remove toxic debris as it travels along the intestinal pathways. Inadequate fibre intake due to the consumption of refined foods causes many of today's digestive complaints such as chronic constipation and sluggish bowel movements.

By optimally supporting digestive and metabolic processes in the body, fibre helps prevent unwanted weight gain and promote weight loss where necessary. Fibre also assists in controlling blood sugar levels by slowing down the rate of food passage through the intestinal tract, resulting in a more gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream. A number of recent studies show that a diet rich in whole grains may lower the risk of type II diabetes.

Whole Foods Nourish the Whole Body

We cannot continue to eat refined foods and expect to keep healthy. Natural, whole foods contain all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals required to nourish the body and promote good health, but only a small fraction of these remain in refined foods such as white flour, white rice and white pasta.

When shopping for whole grain products, remember that products labelled with the terms "multigrain," "stone-ground" or "bran" are not automatically whole grain products, and that a darker colour does not necessarily indicate that the product is unrefined. Bread, for instance, might appear brown because of added molasses. Make sure the label clearly reads "100 percent whole grain" and, ideally, that the product is organic because grains are among the most pesticide-contaminated crops in modern agriculture.

Brief History of Processing Foods

Food canning - The late 1700s and early 1800s marked the invention of the commercial food-canning process. Nicolas Appert, a French baker and candy-maker, put fresh foods in airtight containers, applied a cork and submerged the containers in boiling water to sterilize the food. A little later, Englishman Peter Durand took the canning process further by producing a canister made from tin-coated steel with a soldered cover.

Grain refining - In the second half of the 19th century, the introduction of commercial-steel roller mills made white-flour products more affordable and widely popular. Refined sugar became available at about the same time. Today, refined sugar consumption in North America is nearly 20 times higher than in the early 1800s.

Oil refining - In the 20th century, the percentage of processed, unnatural fats in the form of margarine, vegetable shortening and other refined oils increased by 400 percent. The rampant increase in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other degenerative conditions reflects the damaging effects of a diet based on nutritionally deficient, refined foods.

From preserved to processed - In the earliest methods of food processing, people preserved food in their homes to have it available out of season. They processed foods by smoking, salting, fermenting and sun-drying foods were not refined, only preserved. During the last two centuries, food processing gradually commercialized and refining began.

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