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Let's Hear it for Processed Food!

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Listening to some foodie types, you would think that anything that has been remotely industrially processed was as deadly as nerve poison. Yet even food snobs eat plenty of processed food. It's just the right kind of processed food.

A great illustration of the fact that there is nothing wrong, per se, with processed food is a little bit of self-experimentation by Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University. Last year for 10 weeks, Haub ate a Twinkie bar every three hours instead of a meal, adding variety to his diet with Doritos, Oreos and sugary cereals. He kept up some semblance of good nutrition by taking multivitamins and throwing in a few vegetables, too.

But most importantly, Haub stuck to eating no more than 1,800 calories per day - well below the 2,500 calories per day usually suggested for men. The result was that Haub lost 27 pounds. This 'convenience store diet' may not have been ideal, but in many respects his health appeared to be better. His cholesterol test results suggested he was in better condition than before, despite this diet of 'junk'.

I once tried a similar experiment myself in response to Morgan Spurlock's movie, Super Size Me. Spurlock piled on the pounds after eating every meal at McDonald's and accepting the offer of 'supersizing' every time it was offered. I tried the same idea, eating every meal at McDonald's for a week. I simply limited my calorie intake and, hey presto, I lost weight. There's nothing particular to processed or convenience food that makes it unhealthy. As long as you get a reasonable balance of the major nutrients - which is fairly easy as long as you have a modicum of variety in your diet, you shouldn't need to take multivitamins - then the mere fact that food is processed is irrelevant.

When asked about his own views on processed food, Haub rightly said this week: 'People have a hatred towards (processed) foods... I like them. I eat them. It's amazing how people believe if it's processed, it's not food.'

In fact, unless you only ever cook food from scratch, you'll be eating processed food. As food writer Justine Brian has noted, olives are processed food. Off the tree, olives are bitter, hard, inedible berries. They must be pickled in brine for four weeks to make them edible. Unless you have a handy local olive tree, you'll be relying on a mass producer to supply you with the finished product. Of course, the same applies to olive oil, spices, marinated artichokes and all manner of other posh nosh.

Instead of making stupid distinctions between processed and 'real' food, the only question worth asking about food is if it is fit to eat - not off, for example - and whether it tastes good. Anything else is just snobbery.