I love when people tell me that they are avoiding ALL processed foods. My first thought is always “okay, so what DO you eat?”, because technically almost ALL foods are processed! Processed foods are, by definition, any food that has been altered in anyway from its natural state to ensure safe consumption or convenience. Therefore, that head of lettuce, bag of apples and jar of raw almonds are ALL processed! But does that mean they are bad for you or unhealthy? No, absolutely not! So why does the society tell us we must avoid ALL processed foods to be healthy? Let’s find out.
When society talks about “processed foods” their definition is much different than what the dictionary tells us! Society’s definition of processed foods refers to the harmful processed foods which have additives such as sugar, salt, fats, nitrates, food dyes, MSGs or other chemicals added. These “processed foods” are the not so healthy ones that should be avoided. Some common examples of harmful processed foods include: sugary breakfast cereal, frozen entrée meals, packaged meats (sausage, salami, hot dogs, etc.), refined white bread, pasta or rice, chips, crackers, cookies, fruit juice and soft drinks. These processed foods are harmful because they are loaded with artificial ingredients which increase overall calories, decrease satiety, increase palpability, don’t keep you full for very long, deregulate hormones, increase the risk for diseases (heart, kidney and liver), increase hyperactivity in children, cause irritable bowel symptoms and many more health issues. So yes, these “processed foods” should be avoided on the regular, daily basis. But saying you avoid ALL processed foods is a huge misstatement!
Instead, you should focus your diet on minimally processed, whole foods that can be found in their most natural state (think an apple rather than applesauce, which is the more processed form). Whole foods, in their most natural state will still be processed though, but not in negative, harmful ways. Food producers must “process” foods in order to ensure safe consumption, increased crop production and sustainability of the crop. This helps consumers to have continuous access to these real foods! A good example of healthy processed food choices includes canned fruits and vegetables (with no added sugars, salts or sauces added) and frozen fruits and vegetables as well. Canned and frozen produce can actually be just as nutritious as their fresh counterpart because they are canned or frozen at peak ripeness! When you buy canned or frozen produce, you have the benefit of a longer shelf life compared to their fresh state. This means less food waste in the long run! Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are also less expensive, making them a good option for those on a tight budget.
Some other healthy processed food choices include low-fat dairy and whole wheat grain products. These foods are processed by the addition of certain vitamins, minerals or fibers to make them more beneficial and safe for our consumption! For example, milk usually has vitamin D added which aids in the absorption of calcium which helps keep our bones strong. Yogurt has probiotics added which assist in healthy gut functioning and digestion. Fortified cereals (not the high sugar, kid friendly ones) have folate, riboflavin, iron, niacin, thiamin or other micronutrients added to benefit our overall health.
There is a way to eat processed foods and still be healthy! You just need to know what to look for and how to distinguish between foods that are minimally versus highly processed. Some things to look for on the label to identify the amount of processing is:
- Added sugars: read the ingredients and look for any of the various names for sugar (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, rice syrup, cane sugar, etc.). Also check the nutrition facts for the total amount of sugar in the product. More than 22.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of food is considered high. 5 grams or less of sugar is considered low. Some foods (such as fruits and dairy) have naturally occurring sugars, which are not bad! It is the sugars added in during processing that should be avoided. Some examples of high sugar processed foods include some cereals, low-fat yogurt, candy bars, baked goods and even low-fat peanut butter! (many low-fat products have added sugars to make them more appetizing!)
- High sodium: many processed foods have salt added in to increase flavors and shelf stability. However, too much sodium in one’s diet increases the risk of many health issues. Watch out for foods containing more than 0.6 grams of sodium per 100 grams of food. Some examples include baked goods, chips, crackers, cookies, canned vegetables (with added salt), frozen meals (Lean Cuisines, Stouffers), canned soups, sauces and dressings.
- Added fats: saturated fats and trans fats are abundant in processed foods because they help extend the shelf life of foods. This is why that bag of chips can last much longer than the bag of apples! Avoid foods that contain more than 17.5 grams of total fat or more than 5 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams of food. Some high fat processed foods include chips, cookies, crackers, baked goods and all those tempting candy bars in the check out isle!
In conclusion, it is not reasonable to expect yourself to avoid ALL processed foods! Processed foods can and should be included in a healthy, well-rounded eating plan. Choosing minimally processed foods will always be the best option and to determine the amount of processing, check the ingredients and nutrition label!
-Happy Eating! Kristin-