Yes, you read that correctly, processed foods can be part of balanced eating. The term processed is misleading, often times people think processed means unhealthy, which is just not true! So let’s start with the definition of a processed food per the USDA – any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, etc. that alters the food from it’s natural state. This may also include adding other food substances or nutrients such as salt, sugar, fat and even vitamins/minerals. When we cook, we typically wash, cut, heat and add other food substances, so any time we cook we are processing a food.
The issue with processed foods stems from the extent of the processing. A range of processed items abound in our food system, from minimally processed cut veggies to ultra processed frozen pizzas. Let’s look at some examples:
-Minimally processed – spiralized veggies, diced onions, halved Brussel’s sprouts, bagged spinach, frozen fruit and vegetables with no added salt or sugar
-Somewhat processed – canned vegetables with added sodium to preserve freshness, canned tuna in oil, salad dressings, jarred tomato sauces with added sugar/salt, flavored yogurts
-Heavily processed – ready to eat foods such as chips, pretzels, crackers
-Ultra processed – microwaveable dinners, frozen pizzas
The benefits of some processed foods include ease of cooking with the frozen veggies or pre-chopped fresh veggies, as well as year-round availability with the frozen fruit. Milk is an excellent example of a very nutritious minimally processed food, as it is fortified with vitamin D.
Using somewhat processed items such as salad dressings and flavored yogurts is also fine, just be careful and read labels for added sodium and sugar. A good rule of thumb is the lower in the list of ingredients on the label, the less the product has of that ingredient. If you like numbers, 3-4 g or less of added sugar and 150-250 mg or less of added sodium are considered low.
Enjoying heavily processed foods in smaller amounts and limiting ultra-processed foods to infrequent occasions can help with balanced eating and with the prevention of chronic diseases. I hope this helps with clearing up any misinformation on processed foods and balanced eating!
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