August 9, 2023

Unraveling Ultra-Processed Foods: Rediscovering Real Goodness

Pre-chewed food! It’s like nothing found in nature! 


It’s no surprise that is not how transnational food companies, aka Big Foodmarket their ultra-processed products. However that’s essentially what many of Big Food’s breads, cereals, snacks and frozen meals actually are. They’re pre-digested. 

The grains in ultra-processed foods are “refined”, meaning the fiber and nutrient-rich bits get tossed out. All ingredients are beaten, twisted, heated, and melted, then squeeeeezed out as “extrudate”. 

And yet, after this unappetizing wad gets shaped and loaded up with additives… viola! It’s transformed it into a cheap, shelf-stable, super convenient, irresistible delivery vehicle for sugar, salt, and fat – everything from snack bars to pizzas, burritos, potato chips, and (gulp!) even baby foods.

Compare Big Food’s ultra-processed foods to raw or minimally processed foods like what you get from your local farmers and artisans at Seasonal Roots. Analyses reveal that the more food is processed, the less it makes you feel full, so you tend to eat more of it. More processing also means lower nutrient density and higher spikes in blood sugar. 



Less than a century ago, even people in industrialized nations like the U.S. were still at risk of winding up hungry and undernourished. Food was expensive and sometimes in short supply. The government’s goal was to get nutrients and calories into bodies. 

So scientists focused on making fields produce more wheat and corn using unnatural pesticides, fertilizers, and farming methods that we now realize are unsustainable. Industrial infrastructure was built to refine those grains into easily digestible starch, according to David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “Fast Carbs, Slow Carbs.”

Extrusion cooking began turning those starches into affordable, tasty, often ready-to-eat carbohydrate products that you could easily chew without sticking to your teeth. That made for faster eating, swallowing, and calorie absorption. An efficient new food distribution network reliably delivered these innovative foods nationwide. 

In this country, we now get 58% of their calories from ultra-processed foods. If an American goes hungry these days, it’s not because there’s a food shortage. (It’s because of poverty and social inequities, which is a whole different problem.) Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, obesity and chronic disease began to skyrocket.



The trouble is, the extreme stresses of ultra-processing change the structure of the food. Not just the way it looks and tastes. Ultra-processing changes food on a microscopic level. 

Ordinary cooking isn’t the culprit. For thousands of years, we humans have been cooking our food. It makes meats and starches easier to digest, providing energy for our bodies to run on. Extrusion cooking is different. 

It turns out that when it comes to food, if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, your body probably won’t either.

Take corn, for example. Cook and can some corn, then open the can and pop a kernel under a microscope. Its cellular structure is still intact, a normal symmetrical grid. (The Washington Post has a great diagram that demonstrates the difference.) Most of its nutrients are still there in a form your body will recognize. 

Now ultra-process the other kernel with extrusion cooking. Under a microscope, there’s no grid left, just a jumble of broken pieces. It’s like a bomb went off.

Here’s why this matters to our bodies. There are three kinds of starch: rapidly digested starch, slowly digested starch, and resistant starch. Our bodies need all three, according to a study from Oxford University.

Rapidly digested starch gives us a quick blood sugar boost, which is helpful now and then. 

Slowly digested starch is steadily absorbed as glucose for a more long-term effect. It’s also associated with a feeling of fullness and reduced body weight. 

Resistant starch can’t be digested in the small intestine, so it moves on down into the colon. There, it gets fermented by the good gut microbiota that live in the colons of all healthy people. The fermentation process triggers the release of gut hormones that continue to make you feel full after you eat. 

Everything about extrusion cooking turns starchy foods into one kind of starch, the rapidly  digestible kind. That spikes our blood sugar, messes with our metabolism and hormones, and causes us to eat more calories because we never feel full. All that is associated with obesity and chronic disease.

On top of that, experts say many ultra-processed foods are deliberately engineered to bypass our body’s normal “I’m full!” messages.



Fresh, local food that’s in season is packed with nutrients, plus amazing flavor that no transnational Big Food laboratory can match! And it delivers those nutrients in a form your body recognizes. 

Slowly digested starch and resistant starch may be in short supply in ultra-processed foods. But a bounty of both these starches are readily available in local food. 

Locally made kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, and tempeh promote a healthy and diverse microbiome in your gut. 

Fresh-picked veggies and fruits like asparagus and apples, and whole grains from local artisans, feed those friendly bacteria — and the fermented foods, plus coffee, chocolate, and some teas, help them break down fiber.

Local food from Seasonal Roots that’s delivered to your door makes healthy eating as convenient as it can be. In fact, biting into an apple is just as easy as opening a bag of chips. And so much better for you!

About Seasonal Roots

Since 2011, Seasonal Roots’ online farmers market has connected Virginia families with local family farmers who use sustainable, humane practices. Our neighborhood market managers – who believe in living better through scrumptious, healthy eating, being kind to animals, protecting the environment, and spreading joy – home-deliver freshly harvested produce, pastured eggs, grass fed dairy and meat, plus artisan fare. We empower our members to eat better and live better with more nutritious, flavorful food that’s good for us and good for the planet. More info at