What are processed foods? Well, according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) processed foods are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and that includes raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydrating, or milling.” What??!! Basically, processed foods are any food that you would not find grown in nature, such as whole fruits, vegetables, or grains. While nutrients and fiber are removed from processed foods, trans fats, sodium, sugar, coloring agents, preservatives, and pesticides are added in. However, there are different categories of processed foods. Here are some examples from minimally processed to heavily processed:
1. Minimally processed foods: bagged spinach, cut vegetables, roasted nuts
2. Foods that are processed at their peak to lock in freshness: canned vegetables and frozen fruits
3. Foods with added ingredients for flavor and/or texture: jarred pasta sauces, salad dressings, yogurt, and cake mixes.
4. Ready to eat foods: crackers, granola, deli meat
5. Most heaving processed foods: ready made meals, frozen pizza, microwave dinners
Got it? Okay. So, while eating whole fruits, vegetables, and grains which are loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, would be the healthiest, it is not the most ideal for the majority of us. The idea is to eat as much whole foods as one can while limiting the processed foods.
Part 1: The Good
There are some positives to processed foods such as convenience in certain food items like bagged salads and pre-cut veggies and fruits. These types of processed foods are helping people eat more fruits and vegetables than they normally would. It allows them to get dinner on the table faster. One downside to these foods, however, is cost. The other positives to processed foods are when milks and juices are fortified with extra calcium and Vitamin D or cereals have added fiber. Also, when fresh, whole fruit is unavailable a good option is canned fruit when packed in its own juices or water. Stay away from canned fruit that is packed in syrup.
Part 2: The Bad
Processed foods have added sugar, sodium, and fat that is not found in whole foods. These items are added in order to preserve the foods (i.e. prolong their shelf life) and add to the taste (so you want to eat and buy more). Sometimes it is obvious by reading the labels to see these added ingredients, but other times it is not, especially when it comes to sugar. Any word that ends with -ose is a form of sugar (maltose, fructose). However, corn syrup, cane and brown sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrate are also sweeteners. Avoid these if they occur in the first three ingredients listed.
Sodium (salt) is added to many canned vegetables, soups, beans, and sauces. The largest portion of our salt intake comes from processed foods and not table salt. Usually it is not necessary to add salt to foods after it has been prepared so you might as well just take the salt shaker off the table! If possible buy low or reduced sodium/salt and rinse the canned foods before eating to get rid of some of the salt.
Fats are added to processed foods in order to increase shelf life. I could leave a Hostess cupcake or Twinkie in its packaging on the counter for years, yet if I make cupcakes from scratch and leave them in a plastic container on the counter it would start to grow mold after a few days. Hmmm….. Luckily, some companies are smartening up and removing trans fats from processed foods. This is a good thing because trans fats raise the bad cholesterol, while lowering the good cholesterol. However, a label can boast that is has zero trans fat if it has less than than 1/2 a gram of fat, so read labels thoroughly!
Part 3: The Ugly
Processed foods are loaded with GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) which have been linked to infertility, organ damage, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancers. In order to grow the GMO’s conventional farmers use pesticides and herbicides, and these end up in the final product as well. Since processed foods tend to be stripped of their natural fibers, enzymes, vitamins, and nutrients it can wreck havoc on the digestions system leaving a person with constant stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhea, and other more serious gastrointestinal disorders. Consumption of processed foods can also cause chronic inflammation which is the leading cause of chronic illness like heart disease, dementia, neurological problems, respiratory failures, and cancer. Processed foods may contain phosphates which destroy organs and bones leading to premature aging and osteoporosis. Lastly, all these chemicals in processed foods can destroy the mind. Those who eat a diet high in processed food may experience brain “fog”, difficulty concentrating, increased anger and irritability. However, when they eat nutrient dense food (whole fresh food or minimally processed food) their moods level out, they have more sustained energy, and they become calmer and more collected. I know from experience this is true. When I eat certain meals at the dining hall (I live at a boarding school) or eat out at certain restaurants, I return home with stomach cramping and/or brain “fog”. I prefer to eat at home, cooking from fresh, whole ingredients when I have the time. I enjoy eating a tasty, healthy meal feeling like I can go run around the block or play a game of scrabble when I am done, instead of laying on the couch curled up in the fetal position zoning out in front of Access Hollywood!
With everything else in life, moderation is key. Read labels. Try to choose processed foods with ingredients you can pronounce and recognize, and that has the least amount of ingredients listed.