PROCESSED FOODS 101
What Are Processed Foods?
Processed foods have been altered from their natural state, either for safety reasons or for convenience. The methods used include canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration and aseptic processing.
We tend to think of them as bad, like most high-fat, high-calorie snack foods or even those meals you fix in a skillet, but it turns out that some of these foods are not bad for your health at all. For example, milk would be considered a processed food because it’s pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating. Some people prefer raw milk, but it can lead to lead to food-borne illness, so most of us are happy to consume the healthy processed milk we find in our grocery stores.
Freezing vegetables preserves vitamins and minerals and makes them convenient to store, cook and eat all year around. Fruit and vegetable juice is also an example of a healthy processed food — usually. In fact, some orange juice is fortified with calcium to make it even more nutritious. Oatmeal, unbreaded frozen fish fillets, canned salmon, frozen berries and 100-percent whole-grain bread are also examples of processed foods that are good for you.
Sure, there are a lot of processed foods that aren’t good for you. Many of these bad ones are made with trans-fats, saturated fats, and large amounts of sodium and sugar. These processed foods should be avoided, or at least eaten sparingly.
Processed foods that may be bad for your diet
Canned foods with large amounts of sodium or fat.
Breads and pastas made with refined white flour instead of whole grains.
Packaged high-calorie snack foods such as chips and candies.
Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners that are high in sodium.
Packaged cakes and cookies.
Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat and sodium.
Sugary breakfast cereals.
Why processed meats? Some studies suggest that eating processed meats may increase your risk of colorectal, kidney and stomach cancer. Processed meats include hot dogs, bologna, sausage, ham and other packaged lunch meats. These meats are frequently high in calories, saturated fats and sodium.
Breakfast cereal can be good for you if it’s made with 100% whole grain and fortified with additional nutrients, but many breakfast cereals are low in fiber and contain too much sugar. Read the nutrition label on the package, it will help you decide if the breakfast cereal is good or not.
Be sure to look for products that are made with more whole grains, less sodium and have fewer calories. They should also be low in saturated fat and free of trans-fats. Make sure you pay attention to serving size, too, and balance out the processed foods with more fresh foods. If you choose a convenient meal in a skillet, add a garden salad, fresh vegetables, and some whole grain bread to make the meal healthier.
How to Rid Your Diet of Processed Foods
- Evaluate how much processed food you eat. Do you regularly rely on ready-to-eat meals, frozen pizzas and boxed food mixes? Do you prefer to prepare homemade meals? In some cases, making your own food will be cheaper than purchasing food that’s boxed or has already been prepared. If you want to push processed foods out of your diet, you and your family will need to commit the time and energy needed to prepare your own meals.
- Read the ingredient labels of the foods you regularly eat and purchase. Are there ingredients in the food that you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize? Would you add those ingredients to the food if you were making it from scratch? Unrecognizable additives and long lists of ingredients are often indicators of processed foods.
- Plan out your meals before you go grocery shopping. This will ensure you have all the ingredients you need to make the foods you want to eat and will help you avoid purchasing packaged foods. Choose meals that center on plant-based food, such as fruits, vegetables and grains.
- Stick to purchasing mostly fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products. In most grocery stores, these are located around the periphery. Avoid purchasing food that comes in a box or package (unless you are sure it is a whole food, such as whole potatoes or rolled oats).
- To evaluate whether a food is processed, use author Michael Pollan’s advice: Don’t purchase or eat items that your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize. This could include yogurt in a tube, cereal and milk bars and even some store-bought bread.
- Try cooking one item you would have purchased in a processed, packaged form each week. This could be bread, fruit and grain bars, cookies, macaroni and cheese, granola or even ice cream. When you make them yourself, you know exactly what is in the items and run less of a risk of ingesting unpronounceable additives. As you get the hang of making these foods, you can better integrate them into your regular diet.
- Make large batches of homemade items you like and store them in your fridge or freezer. This applies to soups, sauces, dinners, meats, baked goods and any number foods.
- Consider taking a class if you don’t know how to cook or bake. Many community centers and colleges offer affordable cooking classes to the public. If you don’t have the time or money for a formal cooking class, use online videos to learn basic cooking techniques. You can find great videos on YouTube and a variety of cooking Web sites.
- Plant a vegetable garden to cut down on the costs of buying fresh food. If space is limited, plant a few items in small pots. Even just growing your own herbs can help you better control the foods you put into your body.
- Shop for fruits and vegetables that are in-season and local, if you can. These foods are likely to be the freshest and cheapest. Look for local farmers markets, or ask your grocer what produce items are in season.
(This information was compiled from: Mayo Clinic, Natural Health, and the culinary textbook; “Professional Cooking, 7th Edition)