Processed food has a bad rap, but it shouldn’t, at least not all the time. By definition, “processed food” just means a food item was altered from its initial, pure form during preparation. That ends up being pretty much everything we eat, even stuff that’s good for us: Technically, pre-cut broccoli florets and frozen blueberries are processed. So are unsalted roasted nuts and canned no-sodium beans. Soft-boil your eggs? They’re processed food.
To sum it up, if a raw agricultural commodity – take a deep breath here – has been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged, it’s a processed food. More important is how a food is processed.
“Not all processed foods are unhealthy, but some processed foods may contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat,” says Anar Allidina, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian based in Toronto, who has a master’s degree in public health. To wit: Frozen fruits and veggies often have higher micronutrient levels and taste better than their fresh counterparts because they were picked at peak ripeness and then frozen in that perfect condition. On the other hand, jarred pasta sauce includes tomatoes (healthy) but might have lots of salt, sugar and fat to enhance flavor, making it unhealthy.
“When a food is far from its natural state, it will likely have more additives,” Allidina says. “Too much salt in our diets can lead to high blood pressure, and eating foods that are high in sugar can lead to weight gain and other health complications.”
Here are three tips for discerning between healthy and unhealthy processed foods:
1. Know your fats.
“We really want to try our best to avoid foods that contain trans fats,” Allidina says.
Trans fat occurs naturally in some meats and dairy products. Meanwhile, “artificial trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to a liquid vegetable oil to make it more solid,” Allidina says. “Trans fats can be found in commercially baked and fried foods made with vegetable shortening, such as fries and donuts. It’s also found in hard stick margarine and some snack and convenience foods.” Also avoid foods whose labels include partially hydrogenated oils.
“Science has confirmed that trans fats increase your risk of heart disease,”Allidina says. “They increase your ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) and decrease ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL), fostering the buildup of fatty deposits that can clog your blood vessels and lead to heart attack.” Much better for you are unsaturated fats such as olive oil and canola oil, which are liquid at room temperature.
“You are in control over the foods you buy, so take the time to compare food labels,” Allidina says. “When you look at the ingredient list, you want to choose foods that don’t have added sugar, salt or oils. You want to see a short ingredient list.”
Stick to foods that have less than 7 grams of sugar per serving, less than 250 mg of sodium per serving and less than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving, she says. And choose foods that have higher grams of fiber and protein.
3. Prepare your meals from scratch.
“When we cook with fresh whole ingredients we are in complete control over the sugars, salt and fat used,” Allidina says. “Aim to have more whole foods in your diet, and rely less on foods bought in a wrapper or box.”
Convenience food can be okay sometimes, “you just don’t want it to be your only source of intake,” she says. Swapping out prepared food can be easy: Instead of cereal, have Greek yogurt and nuts. Instead of a frozen dinner entrée, steam frozen vegetables, and bake or grill chicken thighs, she suggests.
Bottom line: food reference list
Here’s a very short list of healthy processed foods: canned sardines, bagged greens, frozen fruits and veggies, nut and seed butters that include only the nuts/seeds, and canned no- or low-sodium beans. There are many more, but what you’ve read here should get you started.
Learn more about journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.