What is processed food? Are all processed foods bad? Can processed foods ever be healthy? Where do we draw the line? These are questions we ask ourselves every day.
Many people see processed foods as a bad thing but foods are neither good nor bad, black or white. Like everything else in life, there are shades of gray. And here’s the truth: Everything we eat is processed.
The key is to educate ourselves on what processed foods we can introduce into a healthy diet and which ones we should stay away from. It’s easier than you think.
First, let’s take a look at the different categories of processed foods.
Categories of Processed Foods
What we typically think of as unprocessed foods are actually “processed” in the regard that they are slightly altered from their natural state for the sake of consumer convenience and/or the purpose of preservation. These include foods that are picked from the vine, cleaned, pasteurized, refrigerated, frozen and/or vacuum-sealed. Examples of this would be fresh or frozen whole produce, milk, fresh herbs and eggs.
Minimally processed foods have been manipulated in some way. They have had inedible/unwanted parts removed, been pressed, dried, ground, cooked, milled and/or packaged. This category includes meat cut by a butcher, seafood, bagged salads, roasted nuts, grains, legumes, oils and whole-grain flours.
Foods can be further processed when they are modified from their original state to become something else. This includes butter, sour cream, hummus, salt, sugar, pickled and fermented foods.
Now we move onto the next level of processed foods. These are foods processed in a factory and come to us canned, jarred or otherwise packaged. This is where we must begin to be vigilant.
Highly Processed Food
Many highly processed foods appear to be healthy on the surface. Let’s take these granola bars, for example. The label shouts that it’s made with 100% WHOLE GRAINS! No high fructose corn syrup! No artificial flavors! No added color! 100 calories or less per serving!
But there’s a rude awakening when we look at the nutrition label.
Whole grains? They may be whole but there certainly aren’t many of ‘em in there…1 gram (or less, depending on the flavor) of fiber per serving
No high fructose corn syrup? That’s true, but each bar is chock-a-block full of other sugars: Cane sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup and corn syrup solids. At 7 grams per serving, that’s more than 25% of the recommended daily allowance for children. As for the high fructose corn syrup argument? Studies show that, although it’s metabolized differently from other sweeteners, all added sugars have the same metabolic effects on the body and can lead to the same health consequences.
But, it’s low in calories, right? Unfortunately, the nutrition label shows that there is no notable nutrition being added to your diet when you eat this bar. It’s empty calories. It’s adding nothing to your body except calories and sugar. (Yes, just like a candy bar). In my opinion, this is the most overlooked aspect of these highly processed foods.
When you swap out the granola bars for this homemade fruit nut granola, you’ll be gaining 3.5 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals per serving. And while there is honey added to the mix, it’s partially offset by the fiber and protein content and the added nutrition found in this natural sweetener.
Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?
So are there any highly processed foods that we can eat? How can we know which ones to choose? I’m here to tell you this: You, without a doubt, CAN judge a book by its cover.
Any food that’s considered processed must have a nutrition label, which lists ingredients as well as calories, fat, added sugars, fiber and nutritional values. It takes less than a minute to decide if any particular item should be added to your shopping cart.
Take a look at the ingredients. Everything you see there should be something that you can find in your own kitchen. If there are any ingredients you can’t pronounce, don’t know what it is or wouldn’t be able to buy it on the grocery store shelf, put that package right back and move on.
You should also keep in mind that less is more. Look for items with only a few simple ingredients. Just like you would make it at home.
Now look at the nutrition section and ask yourself these questions. How many servings are in this container? How many servings would you eat in one sitting? How much sodium, fat and sugar would you be ingesting in that one sitting? Is there any protein, fiber, vitamins or minerals that would nourish your body?
For more information on understanding this information, check out this article from the FDA.
How To Make Good Choices
Shelf-stable grocery items do have a valid place in every kitchen. Things like canned tuna, canned or dried fruits/vegetables and legumes remain edible for a long time, much longer than fresh. They also retain the same level of nutrition for their entire shelf life.
Dry pasta, whole grain flours, granulated sugar and rolled oats are convenient to use and have a long shelf life. Nuts, nut butter and dried meats need no preparation and can be eaten directly from the container.
Having said that, we cannot assume that all these products are created equal. In general, most “flavored” items such as honey roasted nuts and tuna packets have added sugar and/or sodium. So do many nut butters.
Do you know that a single serving size container of many flavored yogurts can contain (or even exceed) your RDA of sugar? Just as delicious (and much healthier) is unflavored yogurt with a few drops of honey and vanilla and/or fresh fruit.
I hate to be a nag but I’m going to say it again and ask you to take a few seconds to read those nutrition facts. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you see from one brand to the next!
It’s All About The Balance
You may wonder why I’m telling you this. I’m the one who’s always preaching about cooking fresh, whole foods, thinking ahead, saving leftovers, yada, yada, yada.
Because cooking from scratch is not always in the cards. I get busy, I get tired, my plans change. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to cook. Sometimes I want a shortcut and that’s ok.
It’s all about the balance in life so go ahead and make things easier by picking up a few cans or boxes. Just don’t forget to read those labels!
All my best,