Raise your hand if you’ve heard some say the word “processed” with a look of disgust on their face. 🙋 Among many other food descriptors, processed has come to equal bad in today’s society, but there’s some things wrong about that belief.
For starters, we should not be labeling foods as good or bad. Period. That’s a disordered way of thinking + all varieties of foods can make up a healthful diet for an individual.
Now that we got that out of the way. What the heck does “processed” even mean? Most of the time, people just label anything that comes in a package or that isn’t a fresh fruit or vegetable to be “processed.” That’s simply not the whole picture, though.
By definition, a processed food is anything “that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption.” (Source) That’s a pretty broad definition, so as I do in these posts, let’s break it down.
Should we avoid all processed foods?
We have minimally processed foods and heavily processed foods with a wide range of food items that fall in between! Think of it like a spectrum.👇 Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a general idea of what I’m talking about.
Now, as a nutrition professional, would I recommended someone eat solely from the foods in the heavily processed category? No. How about foods only from the minimally processed category? No to that as well! If I recommended either of those, we would be missing some major components to a healthy diet: variety + satisfaction. Not all packaged or processed foods = unhealthy; it’s never that simple!
Processing really can mean almost anything. The simple act of dehydrating fruit to create it’s dried form is a process just as creating candy is a process. Different types + quantities of processes may take place, but the end result is the same: a processed food. Are you starting to catch on why labeling something as a “processed food” doesn’t really mean all that much?
Within each food type category, different brands vary in their level of processing. Think about that jar of peanut butter or packaged salad dressing. There’s usually some more “natural” [I use that term lightly as it’s not regulated on the food labels!] options that strive to not include as many fillers or avoid additional processing. The catch here is that they tend to be on the pricier side, so it’s up to the consumer to see if that fits within their budget because you do not have to buy the most expensive/”natural”/organic item to eat healthfully.
With that said, when we talk about the “heavily processed” foods in particular, they typically contain higher levels of added sugar, fat, and/or additional fillers. While that may not be the most desirable option, they are still providing nutrition in the form of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) + some micronutrients. It is still food that can provide our bodies energy.
Can processed foods be a good thing?
Absolutely! There are actually tons of examples of processed foods that undergo fortification + enrichment processes to increase their nutritive value for the benefit of public health. While getting all of our nutrients from whole foods without fortification would be great, it’s not always possible in practice. A daily multivitamin can help as well, but once again, we have to keep in mind that financially, that’s also not always a viable option.
For example, white bread + grain products are made from wheat that has had the outer bran layer removed. Without that bran layer, we lose fiber + B vitamins including folic acid. If women are deficient in folic acid when they conceive a child, there’s a significantly higher risk of their child being born with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida. To combat this, in 1998, a mandate to begin enriching foods, such as bread, with folic acid was initiated. By 2011, there was found to have been a 19-32% decrease in spina bifida cases since adding this enrichment process (source).
How about milk? All dairy milk (not just whole milk) is fortified with Vitamin D. Vitamin D has very few sources including sunlight + dairy products. As such, it’s not uncommon to see Vitamin D deficiencies, and adding it to dairy products is another way to help combat that issue.
For those with lactose intolerance or milk allergies, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc. are some other options which I discuss more in depth here. Most of these do not naturally contain adequate calcium, which we all know is essential for our bone health! So, these alternative milks undergo additional processing (on top of an already long process to produce the milk in the first place) to fortify the beverages with calcium.
Many foods undergo additional processing to make them safe for consumers. Once again, let’s think about milk. Raw, unpasteurized milk can contain dangerous bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness that are especially worrisome for those with compromised immune systems (e.g. pregnant women, young children, older adults).
So, instead, we have pasteurized milk which includes a process that kills harmful bacteria by heating milk to a specific temperature for a set period of time (source). We also homogenize our milk, which, in short, keeps the solid parts of milk completely mixed in with the liquid portion of milk so we don’t have to shake it like crazy before drinking it. We also pasteurize eggs + juices to prevent foodborne illnesses.
Now let’s get real + think about our busy schedules. If I want to make my favorite chili, I’m going to opt for the “processed” version: canned beans. Because while dried beans are very affordable, I don’t always have the time or forethought to soak them overnight + boil them before cooking our dinner. Ain’t nobody got time for that, at least not always.
Or those days when I didn’t have time to stop by the grocery store for fresh produce so I microwave a steamer bag of broccoli. That was a processed food, too. But that processed food made eating at home with your family more achievable, and there are numerous benefits to the family dinner, such as: higher self-esteem, lower risk of depression, lower likelihood of developing eating disorders, better academic performance, etc.
How should we choose?
Take some of the factors above into consideration. How much time are you going to have this week to prepare meals? Is your Wednesday night going to be insane with driving kids to different practices + activities? Maybe that’s a frozen pizza night. But you have time on Sunday evening to prepare a homemade soup from fresh produce to enjoy throughout the week. And maybe a pre-cut, bagged salad makes an excellent addition to your lunches. And you enjoy some milk or creamer in your morning coffee. On Friday, you grill chicken with brown rice + veggies. Do you see how processed foods fit into a pretty normal, healthy food routine?
As with almost all of nutrition, we are looking for balance, not perfection. Aiming to include more whole, fresh foods in our diets is a great goal, but we don’t need to take it to the extreme to be healthy [looking at you Whole30 😛]. When possible, taking your personal situation + finances into account, opting for more minimally processed foods is fantastic, however, including some more processed foods in our diets is not something to fear or judge ourselves for.