Odds are you ate processed food today — and it was healthy. Doubtful?
“Processed food has been altered in some way during preparation,” explains Anar Allidina, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian based in Toronto with a master’s degree in public health. “Food processing can be as basic as freezing, canning, baking or drying.” Add to that microwaving, concentrating, filtering or fermenting, plus other methods.
What matters is how and how much food is processed.
Minimally processed food — bagged greens, cut vegetables — is processed mainly for convenience. Food might also be minimally processed to lock in peak nutrition and freshness: jarred tomatoes, frozen fruit, canned sardines.
Highly processed food is a different story. “Foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances is what makes processed food bad,” Allidina says.
Here are four ways to pick healthier processed food:
1. Choose food close to its natural state.
An apple is better for you than apple strudel.
2. Tend toward short ingredient lists.
“Look for products with a short, clean ingredient list that contains ingredients we know and can understand,” Allidina says. “There are many foods that are processed that are good for us.” For example: pure nut and seed butters where just the nut or seed is in the ingredient list, without palm oil or added sugar. Or pasta whose sole ingredient is “durum wheat semolina” or, better yet, “whole wheat semolina” (bonus points for organic). Plenty of other good-for-you processed products have longer lists. Just be sure the ingredients meet your standards.
3. Mind sodium levels and added sugar, and avoid “bad” fats.
“Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to enhance flavors and extend their shelf life or aid in the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes,” Allidina says. “Many snack foods we see are processed, such as cookies, chips, cereals, microwave foods, soups, granola bars and baked goods. If we have a diet high in these foods, this can lead to eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar, salt and fat. All these flavors are hyper-palatable, which means it overloads our taste buds and can contribute to overeating.”
Allidina suggests foods with less than 250 mg of sodium per serving, less than 7 grams of sugar per serving and less than 3 grams of saturated fat per serving. Also steer clear of partially hydrogenated fat and artificial trans-fat (some trans-fat occurs naturally in meat and dairy products) that often show up in margarine, fried foods and commercially baked goods. These fats are known to raise dangerous LDL cholesterol and lower helpful HDL cholesterol, among other risks.
4. Make your own meals.
“Cooking and making your own foods is the best thing you can do for your health,” Allidina says. “That way you know exactly what you’re putting in your body.”
We don’t have to just eat fruits and veggies, she says. For example, make a batch of soup, and have the leftovers in days to come. Or throw oats, nuts and ground flax seeds in a bowl, then top with fruit (dried, fresh or frozen) and kefir, milk or yogurt, plus a drizzle of honey.
Learn more about journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at www.mitramalek.com. Until reporting this piece, she didn’t realize that the frozen blueberries she puts in her virtuous morning shakes are considered processed.