Beyond the Fear of Processed Foods: How to make Informed Choices.
Processed food fear is all too common in today’s society, with many people believing that all processed foods are unhealthy and should be avoided. However, the truth is that processed foods play a number of important roles in our diet and in several circumstances.
What is processed food?
According to the Department of Agriculture, processed foods are “Any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged — anything done to them that alters their natural state”. This may include adding preservatives, flavours, nutrients and other food additives, or substances approved for use such as salt, sugars and fats. It can also include foods that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals, such as breakfast cereals. In summary, a processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.
Which processed food should we avoid:
Some processed foods can indeed be high in added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats. These foods are called ultra-processed and include foods like crisps, white buns, ice cream, biscuits, sausages, ham, carbonated drinks, instant soups, some ready meals, and some alcoholic drinks including whisky, gin, and rum. It is important though to remember that not all processed foods are created equal.
Which processed food is OK to eat:
Many processed foods have important food safety and nutritional benefits. For example, canning and freezing fruits and vegetables allow them to be enjoyed year-round, even when they are out of season. The pasteurization process in dairy products helps to eliminate harmful bacteria from milk, making them safer to consume. And many processed foods are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals (like milk alternatives and cereals that are fortified with iron and vitamin D), making them a valuable addition to a balanced diet.
According to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consuming a diet that includes a mix of processed and unprocessed foods is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases. The study also found that consuming a diet that is mostly made up of unprocessed foods is not necessarily healthier, and may even be associated with a higher risk of certain nutrient deficiencies.
So what do we choose?
The goal is not to avoid processed food but to choose the ones that are less processed and with fewer additives. It would be “disordered” and impossible to avoid all processed foods. It is therefore important to read the labels and choose wisely.
In conclusion, processed foods are not inherently bad or unhealthy. While it is important to be mindful of added sugars, salt and unhealthy fats, it is also important to understand that many processed foods play a significant role in our diets.
Clinical Dietitian- Nutritionist, MSc