Headlines scream it. Alarmists teach it. The default message: Processed foods are bad for us. Is it true?
Let’s look at the definition. Any food that has been altered from its original state is considered “processed,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. That means a food that has been washed, chopped, heated or cooked is processed. So is food that has been preserved or has added nutrients or other ingredients. Processed could mean a bag of salad mix or tuna in a can.
Perhaps we need to look at the whole spectrum before we denounce the whole lot, states a recent article on this topic in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In reality, many of the methods used to prepare or “process” food in corporate facilities are similar to the techniques we use in our own kitchens. Processed foods can be part of a healthful diet if we carefully consider what we buy.
Remember, however, that foods are processed in varying degrees. There’s a big difference between a washed apple, a jar of applesauce and an apple snack pie from your favorite gulp and go. In general, more highly processed foods contain higher amounts of saturated fat, salt and added sugars, according to the International Food Information Council. A recent study found that most of these not so favorable ingredients show up in ready-to-eat “convenience” foods and meals we buy in restaurants.
Still, there is a positive side to food processing. Much of the food used to feed those in need around the world would not be edible or safe if it were not processed in some way. Essential nutrients can also be added to foods during processing, such as the addition of calcium and vitamin D to orange juice.
As you might expect, food that is minimally processed and consumed close to its natural state tends to be lower in calories. Yet it might be lower in certain nutrients as well, according to this report. One surprising recent finding was that processed foods in our usual diet contribute more calcium, iron and folate (a vitamin needed to produce and maintain new cells) than foods that are minimally processed.
All this is to say that all processed food is not bad. Some foods are processed to make them safer to eat. Others provide valuable nutrients. It still behooves us, however, to seek a bag of washed and peeled carrots over a frozen pizza. And to eat an apple more often than apple pie. I think I can process that.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .