What do a bag of spinach, frozen burritos, canned tuna or granola bars have in common? All of them are processed foods. Though, we have been swamped with warnings about the detrimental effects of eating processed foods, yet most people eat them.
In fact, processed foods have been criticized for the prevalent rampant obesity, widespread hypertension cases and the increasing risk of type 2 diabetes.
Looking into the aforesaid examples given at beginning of this article, it can be seen that processed foods go beyond packaged potato chips, ramen noodles, & drive-thru chicken nuggets.
This article is written with the specific objective to guide & help you learn how to distinguish between the processed foods – the foods that you need to be cautious about and those that can be a part of a balanced, healthy diet.
What is Processed Food?
As per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a processed food is any food that has been intentionally altered in some way prior to its consumption – such as the foods that have been cooked, frozen, canned, packaged or altered in nutritional structure through fortification (for example: adding vitamin D to juices & milk or folic acid to bread products). Processed foods also include foods that are prepared using various methods (fermentation) or made & preserved in different ways (canned fruit, ham, sausages or bacon).
Processed foods vary from minimally processed to heavily processed. Here are few examples:
(i) Minimally Processed Foods – including bagged spring mix lettuce, roasted nuts & chopped vegetables, they are merely pre-prepped for ease of use.
(ii) Foods processed when they are at their peak to conserve their freshness & preserve nutritional value such as frozen vegetables & fruit and canned tuna.
(iii) Jarred salad dressing, pasta sauce & cake mixes are the types, which contain ingredients like spices, sweeteners, oils, preservatives & colors that are added for the sake of texture, flavor & taste.
(iv) Ready-to-eat, MORE heavily processed foods, like deli meat, breakfast cereals & cookies.
(v) The MOST heavily processed foods are typically those that are pre-made meals such as frozen pizza, etc. – just microwave them for a few seconds & eat.
Ways To Include the Best Processed Foods Into Your Diet!
Processed foods can be a viable and convenient option for preparing healthy meals. However, majority of the Americans intake over abundant calories by incorporating the more heavily processed types in their diet and not enough of the lightly processed foods.
The key to ingest the healthiest processed foods is to be able to differentiate between the ones that have been heavily processed versus the lightly processed.
Simply, lightly processed foods are those that retain most of their original form like hard-boiled eggs, pre-cut apple slices, frozen vegetables & fruit and canned tuna.
On the other hand the highly processed ones do not retain their original form such as crackers & potato chips, or foods that are not naturally occurring such as cakes, sodas, and candy.
How to ascertain which category a particular food belongs to? Besides understanding of the food-processing gamut, also important is the ability to understand the nutrition facts label & ingredient list. This is particularly important for you to identify any hidden sodium, sugars and fat contents.
Any sugar not occurring naturally in a food and which has been added manually is termed as added sugar. For instance, milk & dairy have a considerable amount of lactose, which is a naturally occurring sugar in these products. On the other hand, sugars are added to fruited yogurt.
In fact sugars are added to various products including fruit drinks, bread, granola, tomato sauce, protein bars, canned soups, salad dressings, nut & seed butters, protein powders and sports-drinks.
When reading a food label, be aware of all these differently called, some of the most usual forms of added sugars such as fructose, dextrose, nectar, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, honey, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate & cane sugar. Read the ingredient list before buying a product and look for added sugars among the first 2 or 3 ingredients.
A highly processed food generally has a large amount of salt added as a preservative in order to extend its shelf life. In reality, highly processed foods are the major contributors of sodium to our diet. Therefore, opt for foods that are labeled no salt, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to cut back your sodium intake. We do need some sodium, but we mostly ingest much more than the Dietary Guidelines as per the American’s recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams for a day.
Fats are added to the processed foods in order to give them taste & texture and increase their shelf life. The trans fats are the most dangerous because they are the main culprit in raising bad cholesterol levels and lowering good cholesterol levels. Make it a habit to read nutritional facts labels and choose the ones with zero grams of trans fats & no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list.
Useful Related Post: Is Saturated Fat Bad For You?
3 Rules To Select Healthiest Processed Foods
Don’t feel overwhelmed, & worry about how on the earth you would choose the processed foods that are good for you. I have devised the following 3 rules to simplify your job to select the healthiest processed foods out of the flooded processed foods market:
1. Frozen Vegetables & Fruits: If you don’t have time to buy fresh produce every other day or if they are not available in your neighborhood, buy good quality frozen vegetables & fruits. These days due to the improved process used to freeze produce (blanched & then quick-frozen), good amount of the nutrients (vitamins C and E) are the same or some times even higher in frozen produce than the fresh.
2. Fermented foods: Foods including yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh contain probiotics, which may help boost your immune system & relieve constipation. But choose with fewer additives.
3. Sprouted foods: Whole grains, legumes and beans are living seeds. They have gone through minimal processing at the right temperature with the right amount of moisture, which makes them sprout. These foods have been shown to:
(i) contain more protein, fiber, & B vitamins
(ii) easily digestible; and
(iii) have a minimal effect on blood-sugar levels as compared to their non-sprouted counterparts.
Tip: Look for the word “sprouted” on the food package.
Useful Related Post: My Quick Checklist Of Healthy Foods
Conclusion: One cannot avoid processed foods in the present era of busy lives. Prepackaged vegetables and fruits are a convenient option to eat healthfully. In addition, the kinds of processing, like sprouting & fermentation can help us get the nutrients, which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain in normal course.