Are All Processed Foods Bad?

Are All Processed Foods Bad?
Are All Processed Foods Bad?

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

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

Highly Processed Food
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?

Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?
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

How To Make Good Choices
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

It’s All About The Balance
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.

Right?

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,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

7 Foods That Pretend To Be Healthy…But Aren’t

Sometimes those “healthy choices” aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be! Here are 7 foods that pretend to be healthy…but aren’t

Foods That Pretend To Be Healthy
Foods That Pretend To Be Healthy

Processed foods are the main reason that we, as a society, are heavier and sicker than ever.  Unfortunately, food manufacturers have spent years and billions of dollars to convince us that there’s no better way to be happy, healthy and (gosh darn it!) full than to take advantage of the many foods they offer.

The foods (and claims) have evolved over time so I thought I would go over 7 of the current foods that pretend to be healthy…but aren’t.

The Big Empty (Calorie, That Is!)

Empty Calories
Empty Calories

Rice cakes and Pretzels

How did these guys become knighted heroes in the world of healthy eating? They’re nothing but highly processed foods that are full of empty calories. They must have a great PR guy!

Breakfast Cereals

The first commercial breakfast cereal, marketed in 1863 was called Granula. It was made from graham flour baked into a lump so hard it had to be soaked overnight to even be edible.  Graham flour was, interestingly enough, named after Reverend Sylvester Graham, who soon joined forces with John Harvey Kellogg.  After a falling out, Kellogg went on to start his own company to distribute his newest cereal, Cornflakes, which was considered to be more palatable than Granula.

In the years that followed, the quest to make cereal desirable to the general public has resulted in having even the healthiest brands become highly processed products. They contain loads of refined sugar while being devoid of protein and nutritional value.  In an effort to make them seem healthier, they are often “fortified”, which simply means synthetic substances have been added to replace the nutrition that was destroyed during the manufacturing process.

Microwave Popcorn

From the chemicals in the bags to the “buttery” flavor and “artificial and natural flavorings”, this stuff just has to go.  Studies show that dangerous emissions (their words, not mine) released both during and after popping can lead to serious health issues including lung disease.

So what’s a girl to do when she really, really wants a crunchy snack?  No, I’m not going to tell you to get a stalk of celery.  (I hate it when people say that because they know that’s not what I’m asking…)

How about some good, old-fashioned, pop-it-yourself popcorn?  It’s low in fat and calories but it also has a good dollop of nutritional value as well.

The Low Fat Low Sugar Wars

Low Fat Yogurt
Low Fat Yogurt

You see the claims blazing from every shelf in every aisle of the store.  Low fat!  Fat-free!  Low sugar!  Sugar-free! We all know that too much fat and sugar in our diets lead to a plethora of health problems so it’s best to stay completely away from it, right?

Well, no.

First of all, let’s clear up all the claims on processed foods such as bottled salad dressing, baked goods, yogurts and the like.  It’s a fact that when manufacturers reduce the fat in products that normally would contain it, they add more sugar or sodium.

Low sugar items usually contain artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose, which are associated with health risks.

Now for some real facts: Not only is fat necessary for our bodies to function properly, it’s also necessary for our bodies to actually absorb the nutrients from our foods. The same is true for sugar.

So, although we don’t need lots of added fats and sugars in our diets, we do need some and a balanced diet of varied whole foods will take care of that nicely!

Magical Healing Foods

Superfood
Superfood

Superfood

Although there’s no scientifically based or regulated definition for the term superfood, the word has long been used to identify a food that’s rich in compounds considered beneficial to a person’s health.

The term was coined by the United Fruit Company around World War I to promote sales of bananas. This was right around the same time that the scientific world was beginning to isolate different vitamins and nutrients in regard to how their use (or lack of use) specifically affected the human body. When The American Medical Association published an article claiming that bananas cured Celiac Disease in children, United Fruits ran with it. We now know this scientific finding to be faulty and that a banana is, sadly, just a banana.

You would have thought this to be the end of the banana-as-a-superhero movement but, no. There was money to be made so the SuperFoods Express remained firmly on the track despite the fact that scientific studies show little benefit to focusing on them as a superior form of nutrition.

Many studies today look at the benefits of certain nutrients when used in very large quantities…certainly, more than we could consume in a single sitting. They also look, in most cases, at just that nutrient or food, without considering that humans do not exist on a single source of nutrition. And the scary part? Some “superfoods”, such as açaí berries and pomegranates, can actually damage your organs when ingested in large amounts.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants are substances that inhibit free radicals from doing damage to our bodies. They rose to media fame in the 1990s when scientists began to discover that people with a low antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetable intake were more likely to experience damage from these free radicals.

As trials began to run on these findings, the food industry began to tout and market antioxidant-rich foods such as green tea and blueberries. Supplements also became popular.

Despite the fact that studies are inconclusive on the benefits of upping your antioxidant intake (and, in some cases, indicated it could increase health issues), these products continue to see – if you’ll excuse the pun – healthy sales.

One thing the studies did prove? That people who ate more fruits and vegetables of any kind were healthier overall than those who ate less.

The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line

Focusing your attention on certain foods that are perceived to have some magical advantage over other foods may draw you away from the balanced, yet varied, diet that is so important to your health.

Let’s just ignore the hype, shall we? Get out there and grab some whole foods…anything you want. Take any kind of fruit or veggie, any kind of lean meat, any kind of whole grain and turn it into something delicious! Feel free to take a stroll through the Let’s Get Cooking section of this website for some great recipes including homemade salad dressing recipes such as thousand island, blue cheese and Caesar!

Don’t forget to let me know how it turns out in the comments below!

All my best,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

 

 

 

 

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