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Processed Foods: To Eat or Not to Eat

Processed foods: treated like curse words by some, and often blamed for our country's obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and diabetes. But processed food doesn't necessarily just mean potato chips and take-out burgers and fries. By definition, processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption (this also includes cooking, canning, freezing, etc.) When you look at it that way, many processed foods actually have a place in a well-balanced diet. So, the question may not really be to eat or not to eat, but more, how can I tell the nutritious processed foods from the not-so-good-for-you kinds?

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach or salad mixes, cut vegetables/fruits, and roasted nuts- these are often simply pre-prepped for convenience purposes.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna or salmon. Avoid frozen or canned foods with sauces, sugars and syrups added.
  • Foods requiring processing to make them safe or suitable for use- like milk, which should be pasteurized in order to remove harmful bacteria or seeds that are pressed in order to make oil.

The above types of processed foods tend to be nutritious choices that can make healthy eating more convenient for those of us living busy lifestyles. However, be wary of added sugars and sodium in your canned and low-fat foods. Often, these are added to improve taste and consistency- you always want the foods with more protein and fiber and less saturated fat and sugars. Also, be on the lookout for items with added fats, which can help make food have a longer shelf-life.

Less healthy processed food options that should be included in your diet in moderation, include:

  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives). These can include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressings, and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods (food not in its original form or not occurring naturally): such as crackers, potato chips, sodas, granola, cookies, candies and deli meat — all of these are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

General rule of thumb? Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store for the least-processed food choices when shopping and read your nutrition labels carefully!