Processed Foods: Addressed and Assessed
Are they all as bad as we think?
by Leslie Bonci, RD
What is food processing and how long have foods been processed? Processing is an intentional change in a food that is done before the food is consumed. This is not a new concept. Our early ancestors used the techniques of salting, sun drying and fermenting to preserve foods. Canning is popular right now, and a lot of people do home canning. Pickling is another hot food trend. If you grow a lot of berries, or buy them in excess because the price was right and don’t want to waste them, you may freeze the rest. These are all examples of food processing.
The lactose-free milk in the dairy case has the lactase enzyme added, which is a form of processing. This makes the milk easier to digest and causes fewer gastrointestinal issues for those with lactose intolerance.
It seems that every year there are reports of food-borne illness outbreaks. Although it is impossible to prevent all of these, there are food-processing techniques that decrease this risk. Most of the milk and shelf-stable juices we buy are heat treated, or pasteurized, which kills harmful bacteria. This is why raw milk or foods made from raw dairy products as well as fresh-squeezed juices may be risky to consume, as they can contain harmful bacteria.
Looking to get your vitamins from the food you eat? Several cereals and other grains have added vitamins to boost the nutritional value, which means they’re processed. This can be an advantage to help correct some of the nutrient shortfalls in our diet.
Food processing can also save you money and time. Canned and packaged foods have longer shelf life. They will stay fresher for longer and you won’t have to frequent the grocery store so often. A ready-to-heat package of rice which has been parboiled (processed) can be microwaved in 90 seconds. In addition, if you travel frequently and need to pick up food in an airport, a convenience store or a hotel snack shop, be thankful for the processing that allows you to grab a can of soup, a container of hummus, a packet of tuna or a microwaveable meal.
In the summer, it is delightful to visit a farmer’s market and get fresh tomatoes, basil and green beans, but we might still need to employ some processing strategies when we get these foods home. Washing the produce, slicing the tomatoes and peeling the cucumber are all forms of food processing.
Stir-frying the broccoli, grilling peppers or roasting squash are all cooking techniques which are forms of food processing. If you like beans such as black beans, garbanzo beans or pinto beans, you can’t eat them raw – our bodies don’t digest them. You may opt to use dry beans, soak them in water and then cook them, or you might go the easy way and buy a can of beans, rinse and drain them and then add them to a sauce, salad or eat them right out of the can. These are all examples of food processing.
So, does this mean that all processed foods are created equally? Of course not. Fruit chews are not the same as having a piece of fruit or dried fruit. A veggie chip is not nutritionally equivalent to eating carrots and a handful of corn chips is not the same as a sweet ear of freshly picked corn.
So, as you fill your cart, opt for fresh when feasible, add canned and shelf-stable items such as oats, beans, spaghetti sauce, canned tuna, rice and pasta as staples and limit the foods and beverages with added sugars such as fruit drinks, sweetened teas, sodas, candy and desserts. Also, be smart with fat choices, opting for nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocado and olive oil and limiting higher fat chips, crackers, pastries and fatty meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and lunch meats.
Processed foods provide versatility, can be a meal solution to those with limited culinary ability and allow for greater portability. I, for one, am looking forward to using my pots, pans and knives, but for now, canned tuna, beans, ready-to-heat rice, jarred capers, vinegar and olive oil are a recipe for processed delight in every delicious bite.
Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. Her clients include professional athletes as well as “real” people. She is the nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs, Carnegie Mellon University athletics and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. She was the sports dietician for the Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins and the WNBA. You can find her blogs, videos, tips and recipes at her website: www.activeeatingadvice.com.