Are all processed foods bad?

In today’s era of the increasingly health-conscious consumer, you may view processed foods with fear and disgust. They are often associated with the obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. But processed foods are more than boxed macaroni and cheese, or chips. In fact, most foods in your standard grocery store have been processed in some way.

When people refer to processed foods, they’re usually talking about heavily modified products that contain a long list of ingredients, such as snack foods, sweets, frozen-prepared foods, packaged meats and boxed items. These foods often have little to no nutritional value. We encourage limiting these foods in your diet.

Not all processed foods are bad for you

The key is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed. Here’s a quick guide to help you:

  • Minimally processed foods, such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts, are often pre-prepped for convenience. They are fine to include on your menu when you want to prepare homemade meals, but need a little extra help to make cooking dinner realistic for your busy schedule.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned beans, canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna. These are better alternatives to eating out and help make meal prep convenient.
  • Some ingredients like sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives are added to foods for flavor and texture. These foods include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cereals. While they’re helpful in recipes, many of them have long lists of ingredients. So, comparison shop and look for foods with simple and few ingredients.
  • Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, granola, deli meat, TV dinners, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, frozen pizzas and desserts, are the most heavily processed. It’s a good idea to limit these foods in your diet.

Processed foods can be beneficial to your diet. For instance, milk and some juices 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, or grocery trips are irregular.

In efforts to make nutritious food readily available and more convenient for you, minimally processed foods offer shortcuts to avoid the alternative of eating out, or last minute fixes. Generally, you should avoid foods that you cannot recognize in their original form, like potato chips, muffins, or foods that are not naturally occurring, such as sodas, donuts, cookies and candy. These foods are major contributors of added sugars, salt and fat in our diets.

To keep processed foods to a minimum, be sure to look at the nutrition facts and ingredient list before purchasing. Do more cooking and food prep from home to maximize control over what you put in your body.

Caldwell Shackelford Photo3

By Ann Caldwell and Maureen Shackelford, nutritionists and registered dietitians at Anne Arundel Medical Center. To reach them call 443-481-5555.

Originally published May 8, 2017. Last updated Jan. 27, 2020.

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