Are All Processed Foods Bad?
By Jessy Griffel, RD, LD
The days are getting shorter and we may find ourselves reaching for more convenience and/or processed foods to feed our families, because they are cheap and fast. But the big question is… are all processed foods bad for us? Well, let’s take a closer look.
Processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and fast food. It may be surprising to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup and chopped apples are also processed foods.
What is processed food?
Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reports, “The term processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption. It includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.” For example, Armul considers white bread refined since most of the healthy fiber has been removed during the processing. “Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food. It’s also the origin of the term ‘food processor,’ which can be a helpful and convenient tool for preparing healthy meals.”
Processed foods falls on a spectrum, ranging from minimally to heavily processed. Minimally processed foods include bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts. These are processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness including canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetable and well as canned tuna. Ready-to-eat food such as crackers, granola and deli meat are more heavily processed And heavily processed foods are considered pre-made meals like microwaveable dinners and frozen pizza. These foods have many additives such as sugar, sodium and fat to add flavor and freshness, but at times is unnecessary in our diets.
So what is good about processed foods?
Well, there are several products on the market that are considered good for us. A few good examples are milk and juices which are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals with added fiber to help supplement our diet with important nutrients. Canned fruit packed in their own juices and other minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetable are also quality convenience foods for people with busy schedules and easy way they can adding a serving of fruits and vegetables a day.
“The trick is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed,” says Armul. “Lightly processed foods include pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna and frozen vegetables. These are nutritious choices and can make healthy eating more convenient for busy people. Heavily processed foods can be recognized as food not in its original form, like potato chips and crackers, or food that is not naturally occurring, such as sodas, donuts, cookies and candy.”
“Ultimately, you have to familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list,” she says. “Do more cooking and food prep at home to maximize control over the food processing.”
Next time you are in a pinch and need something fast, it is ok to rely on some of those minimally processed food, and now you have some of the tools to distinguish between healthy vs not so healthy processed foods.