What is Real Food?

Mark Twain once said “The secret to success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside”

in-search-of-real-foodLately I’ve seen the term “real food” floating around the internet and social media.  I’ve heard comments stating, “no food served in restaurants is real food”, along with “anything processed isn’t real food”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines food as “a material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy; also : such food together with supplementary substances (as minerals, vitamins, and condiments)”

Just because something is processed doesn’t make it any less real because everything at some point was processed.  We don’t put live animals on our plates; they are harvested and processed into retail cuts before we consume them.  We don’t walk out into the garden and eat from the plant (or at least we shouldn’t), we pick the produce (or someone does) and wash it before eating.  These are all forms of processing.

I’ll admit, there is a lot of “junk food” out there.  Some are full of unneeded sugars while some have twice the fat and carbohydrates that any individual should consume at one time. However, calling processed foods anything other than real food is extreme.  Junk food or not, we are still obtaining nutrients of some sort from them, though they may not be nutrients we actually need, our bodies will still utilized a portion of the vitamins and minerals provided.

I was sitting at dinner with a coworker and he suggested the chicken breast he was eating wasn’t “real food”.  This comment brought up some concern; do people think food isn’t real just because they don’t fully understand how certain items are processed?

The form of marination and curing meats that we practice today has been around for hundreds of years, using the same nitrites, phosphates and salts along the way.  If anything, our food processing techniques have greatly improved, providing safer food products than in previous years and allowing processors to process these foods without losing valuable nutrients that were once lost.

cheeseAnother example took place in a Subway restaurant while ordering a sandwich.  When asked what kind of cheese I wanted the “sandwich artist” informed me that American cheese was not healthy because it was processed.  I kindly replied, “Ma’am, all of your cheese is processed”.  I received an immediate response from the sandwich artist of “no sir it’s not”.

Last I checked, cows don’t typically give us cheese straight from the udder.  This brings me back to my original point; it doesn’t matter if it’s “All Natural”, “Organic” or “Conventionally raised” all cheese is processed along with almost everything that we consume.

Food processing not only allows us to provide customers with wholesome and nutritious sustenance but also allows food scientists and processors to ensure the safety of the food our customers are consuming.

So I ask you, what is your definition of “real food”?

Do you try to avoid highly processed foods? If so why?

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23 thoughts on “What is Real Food?

  1. I consider “real food” to be food that most closely approximates what we ate before agriculture was invented because that is the food that our bodies evolved on.

    • I think everyone needs to understand though that agriculture was not “invented.” Agriculture by definition is “the science, art, or occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops, and feeding, breeding, and raising livestock; farming.” The word itself has been around since the early 1400′s and the practice has been around in some form since the beginning of time.

      Trust me, I’d rather have home cooked meal over McDonald’s any day, but I feel associating agriculture with providing “not real food” is a false accusation. In these instances, this is where the middle man comes into play.

      • As I understand it, humans didn’t have agriculture before 10,000 years ago, which means we spent 90% (or more) of our evolution eating non-farmed foods. I think some of our agricultural products approximate what we ate during our evolution and I’m fine with those.

      • Out of curiosity I’d like to know which of those products you are fine with? I think everyone should have the right to choose to whatever diet fits them best, but are you saying that you support more of a hunting a gathering type lifestyle rather than farming and ranching?

      • I support the agricultural products that most closely approximate what you could get from hunting and gathering, yes. So grassfed ruminants, nuts, berries, leafy greens. However, I live in the modern world and grew up eating everything, so I haven’t made a complete transition over to eating only those things.

  2. Even though I know that everything is processed in some form, when I see that word my mind automatically jumps to “junk food” I think it’s safe to say many people have been programed to associate those two words. It’s sad.
    But yes, I try to avoid highly processed food — as in junk food — just because of the reason you stated above: high quantities of unwanted calories, carbs or fats.

    • Yeah, until we understand exactly how different foods affect our bodies, we should probably stick as close to nature as possible.

      • I think over time, we’ve developed a pretty good idea of how foods effect our bodies…fats, carbohydrates, and proteins aren’t an unsolved mystery. There is years of scientific evidence of how they effect our bodies. I think the “as close to nature as possible” is an extremely ambiguous phrase that is as hard to define as “real food.” Processing steps take it further away from “nature” but are also steps to assure food safety. Because a head of lettuce is washed in chlorinated water, does that make it further from nature? Eating a pork loin enhanced w/ salt and phosphate vs. early humans preserving meat from hunted animals w/ salt…whats the difference there? We know the effect both will have on our bodies in that instance…

        I guess to me “as close to nature as possible” muddies up the conversation more than it makes it clear.

  3. Great post! For me, real food is something that I had or could have a hand in growing. For example veggies from the garden, meat that was raised on our farm etc. Therefore, I classify “real food” as “fresh food”. I know most everything is processed today and when I eat “highly processed” food I feel gross where as “fresh food” re-energizes me.

  4. I too often ponder what is “real food” so I appreciate this post.

    My conclusion it is a term developed my marketers and groups pushing a certain agenda.

    Food is food…the only fake food that exists are those plastic display pieces. People need to make the best choices for them when it comes to food and that varies from person to person.

  5. oregongreen: ^^^^ Correct.

    It’s good, David, to question the language used to describe stuff. Stuff being the scientific word for everything that we label as “something.”

    I appreciate your thinking differently.

    Everything is processed. We’re alive because of a process. I just wrote this comment after I went through a process. I’m about to dress and head out into the world—which is a process.

  6. Great post! Real food is a personal decision based on one’s value system and that choice should not be judged by others or criticized by someone who has different values.

  7. For me, real food is something that hasn’t had unrelated genes added to it. I understand the why of what is being done to increase production or pest resistance, but I’m not sure that is how either God or Mother Nature intended it.

    BTW, not all genetically modified products have totally unrelated genes in them, some have “good genes” which are selected out of the same species and inserted into them. I’m talking about a butterfly gene inserted into corn or soy beans.

  8. Pingback: What is Real Food? | Farmingamerica’s Blog | plantlawyer

  9. For me, real food consists of whole grains, meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit that are as close to their original state as possible and have been harvested, butchered, processed or cooked and brought to my plate in as little time as possible. To qualify “original state”, I mean that very few or no dyes, fillers, additives, preservatives, antibiotics, hormones have been added to the food.

    • To me, real food is one step further than that. I take it to mean pre-agricultural foods, because humans didn’t really know what they were doing nutrient wise (and still don’t) when then made the leap to agriculture.

  10. Marketing culture as a whole is full of imprecise and more or less meaningless descriptive terms. The commenters above have proven there is no concise universally approved meaning of the words “Real Food”. Real food could be considered “organic”, “non-processed”, or an alternative to imaginary food! Some non-caloric, non-fat, no salt added foods Are practically “imaginary”. We all get fed up with Governmental bureaucracy but sometimes legal definitions are the only way to safeguard the contents of the “real food” we are trying to eat.

  11. In my opinion, “real food” is home cooked meat and veggies and takes more than 5 minutes to make and be consumed. I agree that everything is processed in some way, but fast food is what I consider to be the highly over-processed foods that we consume. I tend to avoid fast food based solely on the fact that it is loaded with sodium, high fat contents, and sugar. It’s hard to balance your meals when eating out compared to cooking at home. The added preservatives are what I think classify foods as highly processed. While I’d much rather have a hot meal from home most of the time, I still eat out because I still need the nutrients to survive!

  12. Good read. As a college student living off fast food, this article made me feel slightly better about what I eat. Your story about the misinformed “sandwich artist” was almost as sad as it was funny.

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