Processed food has been known for raising the rate of obesity, high blood pressure and the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. However, processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and fast food hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple are also considered as processed foods.
While some processed foods should be avoided or limited, some actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here is how we categorize processed foods and identify the better ones.
Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
Good to include in daily meal plan:
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 including canned beans, 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, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
Try to avoid:
The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
Is there any good thing about processed foods?
Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereal may have added fiber and other nutrients. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.
Watch out for Hidden Sugar, Sodium and Fat in Processed foods:
Watch out that “organic” and “natural” foods can have added sugars in it, whether it has added high-fructose corn syrup or natural cane sugar, they need to be included when accounting the added sugar intake. (limit to 10% of calorie needs).
Sugar is not just hidden in processed sweets. It is added to bread to give it the nice brown color, and there is often a surprising amount added to jarred pasta sauces and cereal. The number of carbohydrates on the nutrition label also includes naturally occurring sugars which may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. It is important to review a product's ingredients list and look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients including sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate.
Sodium is added to most canned vegetables, soups and sauces to enhance taste and texture of the food, and acts as a preservative. Our bodies need some sodium (about 180mg/d), but we often consume much more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams a day. The major source of sodium intake is from processed foods. Only 20 or 25 percent of it comes from salting our food.
Canned vegetables, soups and beans can be packed with nutrients, so we do not need to avoid them. Instead, look for reduced or low sodium on labels. Also, rinsing canned beans and vegetables can help to reduce sodium content by about 40 percent.
Added fat helps make food shelf-stable and increase palatability. Trans fats, which raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good, are on the decline in processed foods, but you should still read food labels. According to the FDA, a product can claim it has zero trans fats if each serving has less than half a gram of the fat. So, it is better to check the ingredients list. If it contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, then it's going to have some amount of trans fat in it.
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