“Virtually everyone says to cut down on processed foods. It’s one of the few things everyone from different camps generally agrees on. Yet a large number of nutrition “influencers” recommend smoothies that include protein pea powder, or “beef powder”. How the heck are those not processed food?”
You’re right: Pea protein and beef powder (yuck) would both be considered processed foods. As would soy or almond milk, yogurt, or frozen strawberries.
Virtually everything we eat is processed to some degree. Perhaps it’s helpful more to think of processing on a spectrum. A grape still on the vine would be at one end and a grape-flavored jelly bean on the other. Somewhere in between those extremes would be raisins, grape juice, and grape jelly.
The goal is not to completely eliminate processed foods (which wouldn’t even be possible). It’s more realistic to think about choosing foods that are closer to the less processed end of the spectrum as often as we can.
What’s the purpose of the processing?
Rather than painting all processed foods with the same brush, it’s also worth considering what the purpose of the processing is. Is it to concentrate the sugar, increase the intensity of the flavor, or otherwise create a product that hyper-stimulates the reward centers of the brain? Is it to increase the profit margin of a cheap ingredient?
Or does it serve to extend shelf life, increase the nutritional value of a food, improve its digestibility, or make a nutritious food safer or more convenient to prepare?
Obviously, the processing required to turn peas or whey into protein powder serves a different purpose than the processing required to turn an ear of corn into a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
If you enjoy smoothies, you can consider whether the benefit of the additional protein justifies the use of a somewhat processed ingredient like protein powder. Your answer might depend on how easy it is for you to meet your protein needs from other foods in your diet.
Either way, though, even though it is somewhat processed, a smoothie would be closer to the less processed end of the spectrum than a strawberry-flavored McFrosty.