All Processed Foods Aren’t the Bad Guys They Are Made Out to Be
Processed foods have gotten a reputation they don’t deserve. “Processed” is not inherently an evil word. Anything you do with food is “processing.”
The question isn’t whether your food has been cooked, baked, fermented, canned, frozen, mashed or ground but whether it’s been processed in such a way that “what’s left in the package is healthy” and retains a significant amount of its key nutrients.
Food Processing Started in the Home
The first processed food was done at home through canning, smoking, drying, fermenting and salt preserving. This was done to make it possible to have food on hand all year round.
Food processing has evolved and today is about making it possible to put a meal on the table and still meet the other demands of a hectic, non-stop life. Most people including myself do not have the time to prepare healthy meals from scratch using local, whole ingredients.
The problem is the pendulum has swung so far to the other side where there is a category of foods that have little to no nutritional value because they are ultra-processed. The official definition created by the government for ultra-processed is:
Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.
Did you catch the phrase “disguise undesirable qualities” in the definition?! I am going to stay far away from those foods. Examples of ultra-processed foods are: soft drinks, packaged snacks, baked goods, reconstituted meat products such as chicken and fish nuggets, instant noodles and commercially produced soups, and breakfast cereals.
So for processed foods there is a spectrum that goes from minimally processed to these ultra-processed. And in most cases the more stripped of nutrients a food is, the more likely it is in the ultra-processed category.
▣ 90% of added sugar in our diets comes from ultra-processed foods ▣
A study published in 2016 found that more than half of the calories consumed in the U.S. and 90 percent of excess sugar consumed comes from these ultra-processed foods. That is a scary thought.
If you want to eat to fuel your body with the nutrients it needs, keep it functioning in high gear, and free of “disease, then you want to be eating more from the minimally processed foods and do away as much as possible with ultra-processed foods.
Allowed Processed Foods
There is still plenty of foods left for you to eat that are delicious in this minimally processed foods category.
Smoothies, hummus, chopped salads, and canned beans are all minimally processed foods, and they are high in nutritional value. No need to try to eliminate all processed foods. Instead, focus on removing ultra-processed foods and eating as much as possible whole foods and minimally processed foods.
So food that will rot if set out on your counter for a couple days are the foods you want to be eating. 🙂
Read the Food Label
The best way to assess a food’s value is to decipher its nutrition facts panel – the back of the package. I always tell clients ignore the front of the package. Besides the basics of paying attention to calories and serving size, here are tips to guide you in selecting minimally processed foods:
- Choose products with high daily value percentages, 20 percent or more per serving. of fiber and of vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.
- Look at the first 3-5 ingredients on the label. You don’t want to see any sugars among those top ingredients. If you see any of these terms for sugar, put it back on the shelf: high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, agave, molasses, maple syrup or honey.
- Look for low daily value percentages, 5 percent or less, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
- The sodium content in milligrams should be at a 1:1 ratio – or less – with the calories per serving. It’s easy to figure this out because both are shown right on the label. You will have to forfeit this guideline in some cases, as sodium is added in so many products to help the shelf life, but do be persistent in trying to find products that meet the 1:1 ratio.
- Avoid foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, trans fat vegetable oils or margarine, or shortening.
- For carbs eat mostly complex carbohydrates with intact grains — e.g. brown rice, maize (corn), oats, popcorn, millet, buckwheat, wheat berries, barley, faro, polenta (coarse is preferred), quinoa, bulgur and avoid carbohydrates with the words “enriched” or “white” and for bread stone- ground and whole-grain breads and avoid white or wheat breads.
Note: you will have to break these guidelines occasionally, but make sure this is the exception and you have tried to find a product that meets the guideline.
Also, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking if the there are more than five ingredients you shouldn’t eat it, or if you can’t pronounce the word it must be bad for you. These may be true in some cases, but not in all cases. So they won’t work to use as rules.
Specific Minimally Processed Foods to Eat More Of
To get you started, here are minimally processed foods I use all the time and highly recommend you use. They have high nutrient value and save you bunches of food prep time:
- canned beans
- jarred salsa
- jarred pasta sauce
- canned salmon and tuna
- frozen vegetables without added sauces
- frozen wild blueberries (love them on my oatmeal)
- box oats and traditional oatmeal
- bagged veggies
- individually-portioned cheese
Last night for dinner I actually made a yummy black bean soup that had both fresh ingredients and minimally processed ingredients for a super nutritious and fulfilling dish. The ingredients were canned black beans, red miso from a carton, box broth and a handful of fresh ingredients (ginger, garlic, cilantro, green onions and lemon juice). Kids loved it and me too!