Over the years, processed foods have gained a bad reputation for being unhealthy. But is it truly the case? Let us find out.
What Is Processed Food?
Any food that is changed from its original state can be referred to as ‘Processed’. Most foods are changed, prepared, or packaged in some way before we eat them. Some processed foods have ingredients added, such as sweeteners, oils, colours, and preservatives. Some are fortified with nutrients such as fibre, calcium, or vitamin D. Some are simply prepped for convenience (washed or chopped) or packaged to last longer.
Processes such as pasteurizing milk, canning fruits and vegetables, and vacuum packing meats help prevent spoilage and increase food safety. Even foods labelled “natural” or “organic” can be processed. Hence, depending upon the ways and extent of processing they can be classified into four groups [NOVA, 2019] as follows-
1. Unprocessed Foods-
These are the minimally processed foods mainly for preservation without substantially changing their nutritional profile. It includes processes like grinding, cleaning, pasteurization, fermentation, refrigeration, freezing, etc. e.g.- salad mix, bagged dry beans, roasted unsalted nuts, or frozen fruits or vegetables, milk, eggs.
2. Processed Culinary Ingredients-
These are minimally processed foods prepared by pressing, refining, grinding, and milling. Generally, these products are used in the preparation of other foods. e.g. – oils, spices, nuts.
3. Processed Foods-
Foods that have added salt, sugar, fats and can be consumed readily, come under this category. e.g. – canned fish, fruits and vegetables, cheese.
4. Ultra-Processed Foods-
This category includes foods from previous categories that are processed even further beyond adding salt, sugar, and fats by incorporating food additives, flavours, colours for increasing the shelf life, improving texture and palatability.
If you eat large amounts of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. About 70 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from commercially processed and restaurant foods. Manufacturers use sodium to preserve foods and modify flavour, and it is included in additives that affect the texture or colour of foods. e.g. – soft drinks, chips, sausages.
Can processed foods be a part of a healthy diet?
Yes, they can be a part of a healthy diet. There are processed foods that are unhealthy but that does not mean every processed food is unhealthy. Often all the processed foods are generalized for being unhealthy. Some foods are processed for the safety, quality, and shelf life of food without affecting the nutritional profile. Techniques like freezing and canning can lock the nutrition and can be as good as fresh food. If we are aware of what we are eating, go for minimally processed foods and make informed choices then processed foods can surely be a part of our diet. Now comes the question of how to do that? Well here are some of the tips, which can be helpful-Read food labels. This is the best way to know exactly what is in processed food. Everything you need to know is there on the label. Choose products without a lot of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. Learn what to look for in the Nutrition Facts label, ingredients list, and other package claims.
Enjoy frozen and canned produce. Frozen and canned beans, fruits, and vegetables are convenient and affordable options that can be just as nutritious as fresh produce. Look for varieties without salty sauces and sugary syrups. Compare the labels and choose items with the lowest amounts of sodium and added sugars.
Look for the health marks. Often the foods that can be a part of a healthy diet have health marks on them depending upon the product, processing, and end-use.
For example, the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark will help you find packaged foods that can be part of a healthy eating pattern, the foods with FSSAI’s plus F mark indicate the product being fortified.
Make smart choices when ordering out. Choose restaurants where food is cooked to order or there are designated healthier menu options. Ask how food is prepared, which items are made to order in-house vs. pre-packaged, and if you can make substitutions. Request sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side so you can decide how much is added.
Cook more meals at home- Preparing food at home gives you control over what is added.
Snack smarter. Go for crunchy unsalted nuts and seeds, cut-up veggies, fruits, and easy homemade popcorn instead of highly processed foods. Package these healthier snacks in small containers and they are just as convenient as that bag of chips.
Therefore, the moral of the story is that processed products can be a part of a healthy diet if we follow certain rules. Choosing minimally processed food products is the key here. Make small changes in your eating habits and go for healthier alternatives instead of filling up on unhealthy chips, soft drinks, crackers, or ice creams. Be a smart consumer and know your food.
(Article prepared using the information from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/processed-foods & https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/)