Can Processed Foods Ever Be A Good Choice?
Like many other nutrition professionals I encourage people to limit their consumption of processed foods and opt more frequently for nutrient dense whole foods. But should all processed foods be lumped together into a single category and labeled “danger”, “harmful” and “avoid at all costs”?
What IS Processed Food?
Processed food is any food that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, curing, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This doesn’t sound so horrible; in fact based on this list I process foods every day at my house. I mean I don’t pasteurize foods but I do wash, chop, blanche, cook and freeze foods on a regular basis. I would can foods but I regret that I did not learn this skill from my grandmother when I had the chance.
Processing may also 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. Guilty as charged here too, to an extent.
Processing of foods, including the addition of ingredients, may reduce, increase, or leave unaffected the nutritional characteristics of raw agricultural commodities. This is where the devil is in the details. In reality there is a continuum of processed foods and this important distinction is something to keep in mind as you consider shunning all processed foods. The nutrients in some foods become more bioavailable with processes like cooking (think spinach).
In some cases, nutrients are added back to foods to replace some (but not all) of the nutrients lost during processing. These are Enriched Foods (think B vitamins in refined grain products). Fortified foods go one step further by adding certain nutrients above the level that naturally occurs in a food (think iodine in salt, vitamin D in milk) Historically, food fortification served as a public health measure to address population-wide nutrient deficiencies.
Type of Food
|Minimally Processed: foods that require little processing or production||· Washed and packaged fruits, vegetables
· Bagged salads
· Roasted and ground nuts
· Coffee beans
|Foods processed to help preserve and enhance nutrients and freshness||· Canned tuna, beans, tomatoes
· Frozen fruits and vegetables
· Pureed and jarred baby foods
|Foods that combine ingredients such as sweeteners, oils, flavors, colors, and preservatives to improve safety and taste and/or visual appeal||· Packaged foods like instant potato mix, cake mix
· Jarred spaghetti sauce
· Spice mixes
· Salad dressings, sauces
|Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods needing minimal or no preparation||· Sweetened breakfast cereal and flavored instant oatmeal
· Granola Bars, crackers and cookies
· Jams, jellies
· Nut butters
· Ice cream and yogurt
· Baked products
· Fruit chews
· Luncheon meats
· Cheese spreads
· Fruit drinks and carbonated beverages
|Foods packaged to stay fresh and save time (prepared foods)||· Prepared deli foods
· Frozen meals
· Frozen entrees and pot pies
It would be wonderful if we could always eat only fresh locally grown food but this is an impractical expectation for many people who are facing availability, time or budget constraints or all of the above. Not to mention that it might be difficult to consume adequate nutrients in the dead of winter or in the face of a summer drought that limits local food availability.
Do Processed Foods Have A Place in a Healthy Diet?
In a word, yes. Lumping all processed foods into the harmful category would leave many people with very little in the way of sustainable food choices. If you recognized any of the processing techniques outlined above you realize that everyone includes processed foods in their diet. The key to ensuring healthy choices is to focus on foods at or near the Minimally Processed Foods choices on the continuum. Bagged salad greens, roasted nuts, canned beans, canned tuna or salmon, frozen vegetables and fruits, canned tomato products can really add convenience and healthy food choices to our diet. There are low sugar and low sodium canned choices available… you just have to pay attention to nutrition labels to make the best choice for you.
Highly Processed Foods – those on the ready to eat (RTE) and prepared foods end of the continuum contribute a lot of salt, fat and sugar to the diet while providing very little in the way of nutrients. They are often the most convenient foods and are often created with the busy consumer in mind (think Fast Foods!). They require very little preparation, are often very portable and can be eaten while driving or may be found in a vending machine… you know what I am talking about. In the case of Highly Processed Foods you often trade convenience for nutrition.
Dwyer J, Fulgoni V, Clemens R, Schmidt D, Freedman M. Is “processed” a four-letter word? The role of processed foods in achieving dietary guidelines and nutrient recommendations. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jul 1;3(4):536-48. doi: 10.3945/an.111.000901.