“processed” foods are the foundation of the healthy Mediterranean diet.
Processing is a very broad category from simple to more complex foods. Not all processed foods are nutritious -- like chocolate covered donuts -- but many are such as calcium-rich yogurt. Labeling all processed foods as to-be-avoided, unhealthy choices would be a serious mistake. Actually, avoiding all processed foods could result in a less-than-healthy diet. Let’s dispel some myths and set the record straight.
Myth – processed foods are unhealthy and shouldn’t be eaten. Most of us would find it difficult to live without sliced bread, milk, orange juice, ready-to-eat cereal, tunafish, and pasta. All of these are processed, healthy choices.
Processing, such as canning and freezing, locks in nutrients and taste and extends shelf-life, allowing food to be stored and shipped. Processing, such as pasteurization, reduces harmful bacteria. Packaging can extend shelf life, maintain quality, provide traceability and provide tamper resistance.
Myth – processed foods contain dangerous food additives. Vitamin D-fortified milk, folic acid-fortified flour, and iodine-fortified salt are all processed foods containing nutrient additives. Today, many foods are nutrient enhanced to add otherwise missing or additional nutrients to our diets, like omega-3 rich orange juice which helps lower cholesterol. Other additives aid in product stability allowing us the opportunity to purchase a wide variety of foods. Bulking agents, such as polydextrose add thickness to yogurt and frozen desserts. BHT and BHA support product freshness. Antioxidants prevent oil from spoiling. Carrageenan helps form a gel in foods like yogurt.
All food and color additives are strictly monitored and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Every additive in food must be determined safe at its intended level of use. If evidence surfaces that an additive has safety questions it can and will be removed from the food supply. Cyclamates (a no calorie sweetener) were removed from the US market, though many other countries still allow its use.
Myth – food manufacturers only care about profits and don’t care about your health or the environment. Foods live and die in the marketplace based on consumer demand -- no demand, no profit, no product. Each year thousands of new products come and go from shelves because the grocery shopper showed little interest. If everyone stopped buying sugar-sweetened cereal, few would be produced and even fewer would be developed.
Currently, consumers are embracing whole grains and everywhere you turn new products are being developed to meet this demand. Foods that focus on organic ingredients, less packaging, and fewer processed ingredients are all favored by shoppers concerned with environmental issues and have strong sales. The sale of gluten-free foods has skyrocketed in the last few years from very few to thousands of new products. Companies that never produced gluten-free foods are adding them to their product lines to satisfy consumer demands.
New products may be developed by food companies but when it comes to foods lasting on the grocery shelf, the shopper is in total control. Not too long ago Coca-Cola attempted to market a new Coke. Consumers, who loved classic Coke, revolted and did not purchase the newly developed Coke beverage and it quickly disappeared from the shelf. Mothers have demanded fewer highly sweetened cereals and fruit drinks for kids. Companies responded and healthier options are now available. Profits always drive business and the consumer is always in the driver’s seat.
Myth – if a food label contains ingredients with long unpronounceable ingredients, you can assume the food has artificial ingredients and should be avoided. Every food, whether a fresh fruit or highly processed corn pops, is a mixture of chemical compounds that determine flavor, color, texture, shelf-life, and nutrient value. Pyridoxine is a B vitamin, anthocyanins are a group of color pigments, conjugated linoleic acid is a healthy fat – all of them are naturally found in foods. None of them are artificial additives but all have tongue-twisting names. Diglycerides, magnesium silicate, sodium benzoate, and butylated hydroxyanisole are all food additives. If all these terms were put together on a list most consumers would not be able to tell the difference between those that are naturally occurring in foods and those that are added as functioning ingredients.
As the old adage says, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Don’t simply assume that all processed food is unhealthy. Processed foods form a broad continuum of choices from vitamin-D fortified milk to highly processed, calorie-dense snack foods, which many consider as food technology run amok. As with all foods you eat, choose processed foods wisely, but don’t ignore this enormous group of healthy options.
© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books with 12 current titles and sales in excess of 8 million books. The books are widely available at your local or on-line bookseller.
Current titles include:
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Complete Food Counter, 3rd ed., 2009
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
The Diabetes Carbohydrate and Calorie Counter, 3rd Ed., 2007
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to The Nutrition Experts
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