The advantages of processed food is evident to us all, and the evidence is in the enormous popularity of such foods. Unfortunately, the dangerous health effects of processed foods are both scary and life-threatening, so is processed food healthy and what are the best processed foods to eat? In this article you’ll discover the best processed foods to eat to develop a healthy relationship with food. Some common myths are debunked, such as are canned foods healthy, are fortified foods healthy and are frozen foods healthy? Also, learn how to avoid the worst foods for weight gain and adverse health effects with fool-proof tips on how to read and interpret misleading labels on food.
You may be wondering if processed foods are healthy. Well one side of the story is described in how bad are processed foods? Are you risking your health? If you haven’t yet read it, then please take a moment to peruse the article. It goes through the fundamentals of processed foods, including an overview and definition of processed foods, the frightening health effects of processed foods and the top 10 processed foods to avoid. I’m sure you’ll want to find out how many of these are sitting in your kitchen right now!
Advantages of processed food
Greater nutrient retention: Even the freshest of produce begins to swiftly degrade in terms of nutritional value and freshness due to exposure to oxygen and sun. One of the biggest advantages of frozen food is that it helps retain these nutrients and preserves the food for much longer than if left unfrozen. Consequently, the risk of malnutrition can be minimised and even eliminated.
Fortified with nutrients: With at least half of our shopping trolleys filled with ultra-processed foods, it’s no surprise that our bodies are often lacking in the necessary nutrients and minerals. Additionally, some vulnerable groups exist when it comes to deficiencies, including children, teenagers and pregnant women. Since some nutrients are particularly sensitive to processing, foods are now being fortified with the likes of vitamin B and iron to minimise the risk of the population developing deficiencies. Common examples include cereals and super milks fortified with a wide range vitamins and minerals. While supplementing your diet with fortified foods can prevent deficiencies, it’s no substitute for a well-rounded healthy diet.
Limits harmful bacteria: Without certain processes, the risk of bacteria present in food would be much greater. Pasteurised milk exhibits a lower risk of developing an illness as pathogens are killed by heating the milk. Did you know beer, eggs and nuts are also often pasteurised to kill bacteria?
Limits food spoiling: While the addition of preservatives to foods may not be advantageous in terms of health, there’s no denying that it enables a longer shelf-life. This helps to reduce the quantity of food waste and also makes food more available to people, e.g. emergency foods supplied to third world countries.
Reduces unhealthy nutrients: With chronic diseases such as heart disease, strokes and obesity at an all-time epidemic rate, food manufacturers have implemented processing techniques to provide consumers with low or fat-free alternatives, e.g. milk, yoghurt, margarine. Such endeavours can aid patients and people on a weight loss food plan in reducing their overall fat and calorie intake. What’s more, a reduction in other undesirable constituents, such as sugar and salt, can also be achieved by food processing.
Increased convenience: Processed foods are often designed with convenience in mind; whether it’s having it pre-cooked foods, oven-ready meals, pre-packed salads or simply potatoes chopped into fries, almost every avenue has been explored for ways to make food more convenient and to save time for consumers.
How to avoid processed foods
Learning how to choose healthy food can be taxing on the brain, especially when people are inundated with misleading reports on what constitutes healthy foods. Below are a list of guidelines to help you make healthy food choices.
Beware of misleading food labels: The front packaging of any food item is a prime location for food manufacturers to endorse their product. Assuming food is healthy purely based on it including words such as the below may leave you ignorant to the true nutritional value of the food.
- Light – typically have calories or fat reduced, but sugar or other processed ingredients could be added to compromise for flavour or texture
- Low fat – fat is reduced/removed and may be replaced with sugar or other processed ingredients
- No added sugar – just because no sugar is added doesn’t insinuate that the food is low in sugar. It could naturally have a high sugar content
- Multigrain – contains >1 grain but the additional grains could be refined
- Gluten-free – lacks wheat, spelt, rye or barley. But that doesn’t mean it’s not loaded with other ingredients, like sugar
- Fortified – simply fortifying food with additional nutrients to enrich the food doesn’t make it healthy. Common culprits are high sugar cereal fortified with vitamins and minerals
While all the above verbiage may be sound healthy, it’s always preferable to ignore the food packaging marketing claims and instead read the ingredients and nutritional value to assess how nutritious or processed the food really is. Choosing a mix of nutrient-dense foods (whether processed or unprocessed) is one of the best ways to achieve a balanced diet.
Read the ingredients: The ingredients should be listed in order of the highest quantity first. Foods containing large quantities of ingredients (2-3 lines) are likely to be highly processed. If the first 3 items include refined grains, sugar or hydrogenated oil, it’s likely to be an unhealthy processed food.
Watch out for hidden sugar: Often food manufacturers will use an alias title to camouflage the presence of sugar in food. This especially applies to processed foods. When scanning the ingredients list, if you spot a word ending in -ose, meaning sugar, it’s generally going to be a sugar, e.g. fructose, glucose, dextrose.
Additionally, most food types with the title ‘syrup’ in them are usually a form of sugar, e.g. maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup.
Other pseudonyms for sugar include maltodextrin, barley malt, molasses, malt powder and fruit juice concentrate.
Check the nutritional value: While it’s not mandatory, many food manufacturers enforce the traffic light labelling system which categorises food nutrition (fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt) based on the daily reference intake of an adult:
Green: Food contains low quantities of that nutrient
Amber: Food contains moderate quantities of that nutrient
Red: Food contains large quantities of that nutrient
Nutritional values classified as green are generally healthy, whereas when the colour moves towards amber and red, the health rating declines. The general rule of thumb should be to avoid foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. With just a quick glance, simply scanning the label will dictate how healthy the food is.
Use the +353 rule: When reading the nutritional value of the product, check if it has over 3g fat per 100g, over 5g sugar per 100g and over 0.3g salt per 100g. If it does, it should be considered either an amber or a red on the traffic light system and may not be the healthiest choice.
Best processed foods to eat
Obviously, if you have a choice between eating unprocessed food vs processed foods vs organic, in most cases, the healthier option speaks for itself. Unfortunately, such luxuries don’t present themselves to everyone, so making smart decisions in terms of food choices is paramount in developing a healthy relationship with food and your health. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out how bad are processed foods? Are you risking your health? for a list of unhealthy processed foods.
Below, you’ll find a list of processed foods that are healthy to eat.
- Frozen vegetables
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Greek yoghurt
- Fortified low-sugar cereals
- Unsweetened almond milk
- Dark chocolate
- Low-sodium canned chickpeas
- Ezekiel bread
- Peanut butter
- Canned fish
As with any food you consume, all the products in the above healthy processed foods list should be assessed in line with the guidelines above. The nutritional value of similar food products vary amongst manufacturers and so this necessitates the scrutiny of nutritional value. This is particularly true for new foods you haven’t used before until you have determined if it is healthy enough for you to consume. Don’t worry, it may sound time-consuming, but this shouldn’t take a minute to check the ingredients and nutritional values!
If you’re looking for more inspiration or meal plans to help cut processed foods from your diet, check out:
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- Some processed foods are healthier when frozen as they retain more nutrition
- Misleading labels on food may distort the opinion of consumers purchasing food
- Fortified foods can assist in preventing deficiencies provided it’s supplemented with a balanced diet
- Reading the ingredients and nutritional value aids in determining how nutritious or processed food is
- Be wary of hidden sugars in the ingredients list, look for words ending in syrup and -ose
- Adopting a balanced mix of nutrient-dense unprocessed or processed foods can contribute to a healthy diet
What’s your favourite convenience food? Have you been subject to misleading food labels in the past? Do you think you’ll change your diet or shopping habits after reading this article? Post your comments and queries down below!
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