The trend of giving preference to only healthy and natural things has also reached the area of nutrition. Hence consumers are increasingly looking for fresh and seasonal products while fleeing from fats, sugars, and processed foods. People considered processed foods unhealthy because they cannot help associating them with a variety of chemicals. These chemicals include preservatives, flavors, and other additives that resonates. Now chemicals are likely to impact our health in several ways once they accumulate in our body system. (1)(2)
Only professional nutritionists can tell chemicals that might have detrimental effects in the long run. Since everybody is not a nutrition expert, people find it savvy to suspect that all processed foods are harmful since they are most often subjected to chemical treatment.
But is the widespread belief that all processed foods are bad really true? Can we just lump all of them together? And what should we watch out for if we want them to have a place on our menu? (3)
What’s involved in processing food?
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, food processing is an intentional change in food that occurs before it is available for consumption. Food processing includes just about everything that happens after food is harvested.
It entails everything we do to food before we eat it. Even peeling, chopping, and the gentlest cooking method are no exception. So, we rarely eat food that has not undergone some form of processing. (4)(5)
On account of this knowledge, the idea of avoiding processed foods in their entirety is unreasonable because we just can’t! Now, if we can’t totally avoid processed food, what then can we possibly look out for? The problematic types of processed food! O yes! There are different classes of processed food.
You can evaluate the distinction of processed food using different parameters, such as the processes involved in their preparation or the substances added to enhance them. So rather than assume that all processed foods are bad whenever we’re shopping, what you should be concerned about is identifying which category of processed food, a particular food item belongs to.
Types of food in terms of processing
- Processed foods: These are foods that have undergone some types of transformation. They are not the same as they were at harvest yet are still recognizable. People call ultra-processed foods “junk food” also. This is the case with packaged salads, frozen vegetables, or canned fish.
- Ultra-processed foods: Products that have undergone a major transformation process through which various ingredients have been added. The result is far from the original ingredient, usually found in a meager percentage in the final product. The distinction in ultra-processed food is a total transformation from food from its national composition and form. Examples of ultra-processed food include snacks, cookies, or industrial pastries, among others.
- Unprocessed or minimally processed food: This type of food consists of plants or animals that have not undergone any industrial processing. That is, they do not add new substances in their processing. Some examples are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fresh fish or meat, water or plain milk. (6)
Is food processing even necessary? Why?
As we might already know, certain foods, such as wheat and corn, are not edible in their natural state. Processing techniques, such as grinding, turn them into flour, after which they made or produce bread, cereal, pasta, or another grain-based edible product from them.
Besides, food processing can affect the nutritional quality of food in two ways: it can improve it, for example, by adding components that were not present, such as vitamin D, or by reducing fat, salt or sugar. So, processing does not always make food unhealthy; you can safely consume certain processed foods. (7)
Common healthy processed foods
- 100% whole grain or whole-grain bread: The habitual consumption of white or refined bread should be avoided, as far as possible, in favor of whole wheat bread. Although the latter is also processed, it is a key healthy option in the diet due to its properties and nutritional contribution. When choosing which whole wheat bread to buy, you must take a series of precautions. Many types of bread are labeled whole grain when, in fact, they are not. To avoid this confusion, the percentage of whole grain flour should be 100% or similar. (8)
- Canned, dried, or frozen legumes: They are very necessary. We only have to avoid those presented in prepared dishes or ready-made sauces, such as hummus (although you can find some that are very little processed, and others with many additives). Legumes cooked in a pot not only don’t harm us, but they make things much easier for us. The processing they have is stew.
- Legume or nut flours: In the family of flours, It would be best to avoid the refined ones. We can shuffle that of spelled, quinoa, and whole wheat. But the healthiest flours will always be those of legumes or nuts. It is not a priority to look for better versions of flours because flours do not have to be consumed in large quantities.
- Wholemeal or legume flour pasta: In the case of pasta, the best ones are those types: wholemeal or legume flour. You can consider taking fresh pasta; however, it is best to avoid taking refined pasta or dishes prepared with pasta because of their high amount of calories and low amounts of fiber compared to eating whole-grain pasta. (9)
- Packaged, cut, or frozen fruits and vegetables: It is best to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and in the case of processed ones, the ones that we must discard are syrupy or candied. On the other hand, if we find them natural, cut, or frozen, that processing will not have altered their properties. Two examples: canned, fresh pineapple, or frozen beans.
- Fish cut, packaged, or frozen: The same goes for fish. The fresher, the better, but the chopped, packaged, or frozen processed ones are healthy. We must avoid the surimi and battered ones and sporadically shuffle the preserves and prepared dishes. You have to look at the list of ingredients. Depending on the salt content and the type of oil, we will have to assess it.
- Processed meat: The only healthy meat products are ground or frozen meat. But be careful because, in minced meat, we must make sure that it does not have additives. In the supermarket, what they call meat preparations, or meat burgers is not minced meat, it has additives, and it is not advisable”.
- Peeled, raw, or roasted nuts and seeds: These are the healthy ones. It’s better to put aside the salty, fried, or sugary. Sometimes it isn’t easy to find them on the supermarket shelves. You have to search thoroughly.
- Milk: Better pasteurized, and it is not scientifically justified that we should prioritize skimmed over the whole. This is a myth. In reality, skimmed dairy products are less satisfying, and hunger comes back sooner. The milk that you always have to avoid is the sugary ones. (10)
- Yogurt (Natural or Kefir): These are the two healthy options in this group of products that Mena Sánchez from the Human Nutrition Unit, University Hospital of Sant Joan de Reus, recommends. We must avoid sweetened foods, and, as with milk, it is not justified that we prioritize skimmed foods. Natural yogurt can be healthy or toxic. The key is in its ingredients: if you only have milk, powdered milk, and lactic ferments, go ahead. If there are other components, watch out! (11)
- Extra virgin olive oil: You can occasionally eat sunflower, flax, or coconut oil. The healthiest is the extra virgin olive, the one that we should choose whenever we can, especially for raw consumption. Other refined oil, you can stop using for foods. (12)
- Fresh or aged cheese: Eat spreads or grated cheeses only occasionally, and it would be best to avoid processed cheeses and sugary or melted ones. Its formulation is not so advisable, because they substitute part of this product for other lower-quality ingredients. The grated cheese has a part of flour, which is not cheese. Natural but low-fat dairy products are okay.
- Chocolate with more than 85% cocoa: The percentage of cocoa is the key. And the bigger it is, the better. The reason? What is not cocoa will be sugar. (13)
We cannot avoid processed food entirely. But then keep in mind that consuming freshly boiled vegetables cannot be the same as eating canned soup. The processing both of them undergo impacts significantly on their nutritional value.
Some food processes, such as deep freezing, pasteurization, or fermentation, can preserve or enhance certain nutrients and make food safer for consumption.
Therefore, not all processed foods are bad. The key is knowing how to correctly interpret foods’ nutritional information and distinguish between processed and ultra-processed.
Sara Leandro is a certified health coach who helps others feel their best through individualized lifestyle changes that meet their unique needs and health goals. She covers topics ranging from health and productivity to relationships.