The scale of “processed foods” goes from prewashed salad greens and frozen berries to Twinkies and Cheetos. Here’s how to think beyond “processed” and about nutrition.
Do you try to avoid processed foods but enjoy the convenience offered by prewashed salad greens and canned tuna? Well, those are processed foods, too. From your morning coffee or tea to the frozen berries in your smoothie to the yogurt you eat for a snack to the crusty whole-grain bread you serve with dinner — it’s all processed.
As soon as our ancestors used fire, sun and salt to cook, dehydrate or preserve food, food processing was born. Essentially, a processed food is any food that’s been deliberately changed from a raw agricultural commodity before we eat it. This applies to most foods — to varying degrees. Turning apples into applesauce, potatoes into potato chips, olives into olive oil … mystery ingredients into neon-orange snack foods.
Until about 100 years ago, home cooks did most food processing. Today, food processing is largely industrialized. Some industrial food processing simply replicates what a home cook could do — freezing berries, canning tomato sauce, baking bread, fermenting milk into yogurt or cheese. Other processing methods have created foods or ingredients that can’t be replicated in a home kitchen and offer no nutritional value, such as hydrogenated oils, corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.
Perhaps a better question to ask than “Is it processed?” would be “Has the food been altered to the point that its nutrition has been compromised?” Minimally processed foods are recognizable for what they are and have less of what we don’t need — added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats — and more of what we do need, namely nutrients in their original form. Nutrients act in a synergistic fashion within their original food “packaging.” For example, when we get vitamin E in its whole-food form, like from nuts and seeds, other nutrients in these foods act together to provide health benefits.
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Heavily processed foods, on the other hand, may have long lists of ingredients that read like a science experiment or are missing key nutrients. For example, refined grains are stripped of their fiber and many of their natural vitamins and minerals.
While heavily processed foods that are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor — such as chips, candy bars, sodas and frozen meals with low-quality ingredients — could erode health over time if eaten to the exclusion of more nutritious fare, there are benefits to many minimally processed foods.
• Food processing helps ensure a safe and steady food supply and makes it easier to put a healthy meal on the table and still carry out the other demands of modern life.
• Foods like single-serving yogurts or cheese sticks provide a nutritious, convenient snack when you aren’t near a kitchen.
• Fermentation and culturing — both forms of processing — enhance the benefits of the food, making it easier to digest and providing us with beneficial probiotic bacteria, which is good for gut health.
• Freezing and canning, especially of single-ingredient foods like fruit, vegetables, beans, seafood and lean proteins, locks in nutrients at their peak and provides year-round access.
While focusing on eating whole foods and minimally processed foods has benefits for taste, nutrition and the environment, that can feel like a big leap if you have few kitchen skills and have grown dependent on packaged convenience foods. Consider moving toward adding any whole foods a little at a time. Try simple recipes using more whole foods, and add spices for an extra flavor boost.