If you’ve watched the news at all in the last decade, you’ve probably heard something negative about processed foods. Processed foods have been blamed for the national rise in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. But what exactly is a processed food, and is it really all that bad for you?
Processed foods defined
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats. So, by definition, most times we engage in food preparation and cook, we are in fact processing foods.
Which foods are more processed?
According to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods range on a scale of minimally processed to mostly processed:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, chips and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
Heavily processed foods should be avoided when possible. Minimally processed foods have a place in healthful diets. For example, low-fat milk, whole-grain/wheat breads, pre-cut vegetables and fresh-cut greens are all considered processed foods and yet all part of a healthy diet. Milks and juices may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Breakfast cereals may be fortified with additional fiber. Canned fruits (packed in water or natural fruit juice) can be part of a healthy diet when fresh fruit isn’t readily available.
Read those labels!
It’s important to do some investigative work by first examining the ingredient list and analyzing the nutrition facts panel. Consuming processed foods on occasion is fine. However, it’s vital to look for hidden sugar, fat and salt. Just because a product might read “natural” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. Look for words such as sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate. Beginning in July 2018, grams of added sugars will also be included on the nutrition facts label.
When it comes to sodium, I often hear people comment that they don’t put salt on their food. Well, as it turns out, you don’t even need to, because manufacturers have already added salt for you — and too much at that. Make sure to look for low-sodium or reduced-sodium food items. Rinsing canned vegetables with water also helps remove some of the sodium. Remember, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
The skinny on trans fat
Although manufacturers are working to eliminate trans fat, if a product has less than 0.5g of trans fat, manufacturers can still claim it has 0 grams of trans fat. Trans fat is considered by many doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fat — also called trans fatty acids — both raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol. Be cautious of foods high in saturated fat as well.
The key to healthy eating starts with you. Educate yourself on what to look for and make sure you talk to your primary care provider or local nutrition expert to discuss a diet plan that works best for you.Anne Harguth is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in Waseca.