Processed foods: What you should know

If you’ve watched the news, you’ve probably heard something negative about processed foods. They’ve been blamed for the national rise in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. But what exactly are processed foods, and are they really all that bad for you?

Processed foods defined

According to the Department of Agriculture, processed food are any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged — anything done to t both that alters their natural state. This may include adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats.

Which foods are more processed?

Here’s how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ranks processed foods from minimally to mostly processed:

  • Minimally processed foods, such as fresh blueberries, cut vegetables and roasted nuts, are simply prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes or tuna, and frozen fruit or vegetables.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture, such as sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives, include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, chips and deli meat, are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or premade meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

Minimally processed foods have a place in healthy diets. For example, low-fat milk, whole-grain or wheat breads, precut vegetables and fresh-cut greens are considered processed foods. Also, milks and juices may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium, while breakfast cereals may have added fiber. And canned fruits packed in water or natural fruit juice can be part of a healthy diet when fresh fruit isn’t easily available.

Read those labels

It’s important to do some investigative work by examining the ingredient list and analyzing the Nutrition Facts label. Just because a product reads “natural” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you.

Eating processed foods on occasion is fine. However, look for hidden sugar, fat and salt, especially those added during processing. Most Nutrition Facts labels now include added sugars. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10% of total calories from added sugars. Learn to spot words like “maltose,” “brown sugar,” “corn syrup,” “honey” and “fruit juice concentrate.”

When it comes to sodium, people often comment they don’t put salt on their food. As it turns out, you don’t even need to, because manufacturers have already added salt for you — and too much, in fact. The Dietary Guidelines also recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. So look for low- or reduced-sodium foods. Also, try rinsing canned vegetables with water to remove some of the sodium.

The skinny on trans fat

Many health care professionals consider transfat to be the worst type of fat. Unlike other dietary fats, transfat — also called transfatty acids — raises your low-density lipoprotein (LDL or bad) cholesterol and lowers your high-density lipoprotein (HDL or good) cholesterol. Although manufacturers are working to eliminate transfat, if a product has less than 0.5 grams of transfat, manufacturers can claim it has zero grams. Be cautious of foods high in saturated fat, as well.

The key to healthy eating starts with you. Educate yourself on what to look for and talk with your health care professional or nutrition expert to discuss a food plan that works best for you.

Anne Harguth is a registered dietitian in Waseca, Minnesota.