Processed foods have a bad reputation. They are often blamed for the rise in obesity and other health problems. Many people have the misconception that all processed foods are unhealthy. However, this is not entirely true. Not all processed foods are created equal.
Processed foods are defined as any food that has been altered in some way from its original state. This can include foods that have been canned, frozen, dried, or packaged. Processing can involve adding sugar, salt, and preservatives to enhance flavor and extend shelf life.
The Different Types of Processing
Processing is not always bad. It can actually be beneficial for some foods. For example, pasteurizing milk to kill bacteria and make it safe for consumption is a form of processing. Without pasteurization, milk would not be safe to drink.
There are two main types of processing: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical processing involves physically changing the food, such as grinding almonds into almond butter. Chemical processing involves adding chemicals to the food, such as adding salt to preserve pickles.
Not all types of processing are created equal. Some processing methods are worse for the nutritional value of the food. For example, vegetables that are canned may lose some of their nutritional value during processing. However, freezing vegetables can actually preserve more of their nutrients compared to cooking them.
The Benefits of Processing
Processing can have several benefits. It can extend the shelf life of foods, which can reduce food waste and increase accessibility to healthy foods. For example, canned and frozen foods are often more affordable and accessible than fresh produce, especially in areas where fresh produce is not readily available.
Processing can also make some foods more affordable. Foods that are seasonal or require time-consuming preparation can be processed for convenience and cost-effectiveness. For example, pre-chopped vegetables are more expensive than whole vegetables, but they save time and can be more convenient for cooking.
Picking the Right Processed Foods
Not all processed foods are healthy, but some can be part of a balanced diet. The key is to choose the right ones. Look for minimally processed foods with fewer added sugars and salts. Choose simple ingredient lists with foods that are recognizable and easy to pronounce.
“Individuals should opt for minimally processed foods that have been processed in healthy ways and avoid ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat,” says Dr. Anna Rangan, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney.
Examples of healthy processed foods include canned beans, frozen vegetables, and unsweetened dried fruit. These foods can be nutritious and convenient for cooking and snacking.
The Bottom Line
Processed foods are not all the same. Some processing methods are beneficial for preserving the nutrients of the food, while others can be detrimental to nutrition. It’s important to choose the right processed foods and to consume them in moderation.
1. “What Is Processed Food? The USDA Has an Answer” by Alexandra Sifferlin on Time.
2. “Is All Processed Food Unhealthy?” by Kris Gunnars on Healthline.