A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council showed that 43% of consumers thought processed foods were bad for them and only 18% considered them favorably. Consumers with the highest incomes and the most education are the ones most likely to have negative ideas about processed food. First question – exactly what is a processed food?
Food processing is any change that is done to a food before you eat it. Bagged baby carrots that have been washed and cut are a processed food. Canned beans, an excellent source of protein, fiber, and minerals, are processed. Dried fruit is processed, but so are candy bars, energy drinks, frozen dinners and French fries. Herein lies the problem, processed foods are a huge category – some good for you and some not so good. To paint them all with the same brush may actually shortchange you from eating a healthy diet. But, eating them indiscriminately can also cause you to take in too many calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar. Let’s begin by looking at the broad categories of processed foods.
Minimally processed foods: salad in a bag, washed and bagged vegetables, roasted nuts, whole grain bread, and pasteurized milk. All of these foods are rich in nutrients and contribute positively to your health.
Preserved or enhanced processed foods: frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables; breakfast cereals (even oatmeal); bread, pasta, crackers, and rice; canned meat, fish and beans; cheese, and yogurt. With this group we need to start making choices. Frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables allow us to have healthy choices year round. Veggies in cheese sauce, can add too much salt or too many calories. Fruits packed in heavy syrup add too calorie dense. But, there are better options – low salt veggies or fruits packed in fruit juice – so pick these. Heavily sweetened breakfast cereal should be left on the supermarket shelf, but those high in fiber and made from whole grains are a great choice. Even artisanal whole wheat bread is processed. The flour must by milled, the yeast is processed, the salt is dried, and added seeds are hulled and washed. Yogurt is fermented, a centuries old processing technique. If it is nonfat, the milk was processed to remove the fat.
In this group you also have fortified foods that have helped to eliminate public health problems. Iodized salt eliminated goiter. Folic acid (a B vitamin) is added to flour, pasta and cereal. This has increased our intake of this important vitamin that protects against birth defects and cancer. Without this fortification, 88% of people fell below the daily recommended intake. Live, active bacteria (probiotics) in yogurt help us counteract harmful bacteria that could cause an infection.
Ready-to-eat processed foods: Lunch meats, rotisserie chicken, nut butters, cereal and energy bars, frozen dinners, canned soups, pretzels, chips, ice cream, candy bars, cakes, cookies, fruit drinks, and soda. Some of these choices are loaded with calories, fat, salt and sugar. Yet others can be good choices. A rotisserie chicken can be the foundation of a healthy supper when there is little time to cook. There are lowfat ice creams, whole grain cookies (graham crackers are a whole grain) and reduced sodium pretzels available.
Unprocessed foods won’t automatically make you healthy, and processed foods chosen poorly, won’t either. Most of our food supply is processed in one way or another – and that’s often a good thing. Processing allows you to enjoy a very wide variety of foods year-round. It offers you value for your food dollar. Processed foods save time. Are you prepared to bake your own bread daily? Food processing prevents foodborne illness, provides needed nutrients, and extends the shelf-life of foods.
There is no question many processed foods still contain too much trans fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt. But that is where you come in. Read labels and ingredient lists. Leave the poor choices on the shelf and put the better choices in your grocery cart. Instead of painting all processed foods with a negative brush, shop wisely, choose wisely and eat wisely.
© 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 sales of more than 8.5 million books.
The Complete Food Counter, 4th ed., 2012
The Diabetes Counter, 4th Ed., 2011
The Protein Counter, 3rd Ed., 2011
The Calorie Counter, 5th Ed., 2010
The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, 3rd Ed., 2010
The Fat Counter, 7th ed., 2009
The Healthy Wholefoods Counter, 2008
The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed., 2008
Your Complete Food Counter App: Click Here
For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to: TheNutritionExperts
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