When you think of the phrase “processed foods,” what types of foods come to mind? Macaroni and cheese? Sauerkraut? Yogurt? Cut leaf spinach? Believe it or not, all of these are examples of processed foods. Most people assume that all processed foods are unhealthy, but the term is a little misleading. According to the USDA, processed food is any food that has changed in character. If you buy a head of broccoli at the grocery store and then cut them into pieces for a vegetable tray, you’ve created a processed food out of that broccoli. No one would consider that an unhealthy food, right?
Let’s learn a little more about what processed foods mean and how some can be part of a very healthy diet. Processed foods can range from minimally to heavily processed. An example of a minimally processed food would be cut vegetables, apple slices, or roasted nuts. Foods that are processed to seal in nutrition quality include frozen vegetables and fruits, canned tuna, and canned tomatoes. Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture include yogurt and pasta sauce. Examples of more heavily processed foods include crackers and granola. And of course what most of us probably envision when we think of processed foods, microwave dinners, boxed macaroni and cheese, and frozen pizza.
Some processing is a good thing. Cut vegetables can be a good idea for those who have busy schedules. Frozen fruits are a great option when fruit is not in season. Hard boiled eggs make a great breakfast or snack. The foods to be concerned about are the heavily processed type--foods with lots of added sugars, salt, and fat. Added sugars will be listed on the label as sugar, maltose, honey, cane sugar, and corn syrup. Limit or avoid the item if added sugar is one of the first two or three ingredients listed on the label.
Some processed foods contain a lot of sodium/salt. A good example is canned soup. While salt helps preserve shelf-life, it can aggravate high blood pressure and heart disease. Choose low-sodium or no-salt-added canned items whenever possible. Fats also help extend shelf-life, but occasionally the dangerous trans-fat still makes its way into food. The FDA will enact a ban on trans fats in 2018, but until then, check the ingredients list for the words “partially hydrogenated oils” and avoid foods that contain them.
So then next time you hear the phrase “processed foods,” remember that it isn’t what it seems. Heavily processed foods are the concern. Less processed foods can be part of a daily, healthy diet!