What is Processed Food

You hear it all the time, get healthy, stop eating so much processed food.

Ever thought about it? What exactly IS processed food? What makes it so unhealthy?

What are processed foods?

“Processed foods” is a VERY general term. The International Food Information Council qualifies the processing of food as “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat … as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.”  Simply put, any method used to turn fresh food into food products. These processes include washing, chopping, pasteurising, freezing, fermenting, packaging and cooking. More importantly, it also includes adding ingredients to food to enhance flavour or extend shelf life, a lot of it necessary to bring food to your table, make what you eat healthier & safer, some of it more for the aesthetic appeal and flavour.

“Wait, what? That’s just about everything I eat!” We hear you say.

That’s true. The act of seasoning, marinating and cooking is already processing food. There aren’t many truly unprocessed food that we consume.

How processed is it?

Now that we know what Processed Food is, the logical question next time you’re ordering groceries is ‘how processed it is’ and “how is it processed?”

Very generally, the less processed the better. Read the ingredients; the fewer total and the more you recognize, the better, hard-to-pronounce ingredients are often chemical fillers, sweeteners, colorants, nitrates, antibiotics and other preservatives.

When is Processed Food bad for me?

A lot of negative impact comes when food is processed to improve flavour, shelf life and aesthetics. The main concern is the reduction with the food’s nutritional value or adds things, like sodium and sugar.

Refined grains. Processed foods may contain refined grains, such as white flour. Milling whole grains removes the bran (which contains most of the fibre) and the germ (which contains protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals). Adding nutrients back after processing is called fortification It may not restore the original nutritional profile. These products are often processed with empty calories, for example for fried chicken wings. The oil and flour crates a batter, that increases the calories but has no nutrients.

Added sugar. Caloric sweeteners, like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, are refined carbohydrates. These are considered unhealthy if they take up too much of your diet. Many processed foods contain added sugar.

Sodium. Processed foods from the supermarket often contain a lot of added sodium. At the top of the list are canned soups, breads, frozen foods, and processed meats. Consuming an excessive amount of sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, although it remains controversial what a healthy daily intake of sodium is.

Trans fats. Some processed foods contain trans fats, which in any amount are associated with higher risk for clogged arteries. These substances form when oils are chemically altered to make them stiffer at room temperature. You are most likely to find trans fats in crackers, cookies, frozen pizza, and baked goods like pastries, pies, and donuts. The “nutrition facts” label on packaged foods lists trans-fat levels.

Most store-bought bacon, hot dogs and pre-packaged deli meats are also highly processed and loaded with nitrates to stop the growth of bacteria.

In general you could also call all of the above Ultra Processed Foods. Unfortunately they are often calorie heavy, cheaper, tastier and more convenient to purchase. They are also digested faster by the body, making you hungrier sooner. Examples would be chips, donuts, burgers

When is Processed Food good for me?

Processed food can help you eat more nutrient-dense foods. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed, bagged spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.

How to Choose?

The world today makes it impossible to not consume some sort of processed food.

However, we can always choose to limit the negative impacts from unhealthy Processed Foods:

  1. Look for food that are processed as little as possible
  2. Prepare from fresh ingredients if you can, when you can
  3. Try to stay clear of things that have a super long shelf life
  4. Eat natural as much as possible
  5. Avoid pre-packaged meals like frozen pizzas
  6. Avoid processed meat like ham, salami, bacon, pre-packaged sausages

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