Processed foods, in the great scheme of humanity, are a relatively new addition, and not necessarily a helpful one.
For most of our existence on the planet, humans have eaten raw, unprocessed, or, at best, minimally processed foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, starchy tubers, then meats, fish, and more recently whole grains, legumes and dairy products.
Beginning in the 1950s, then growing at exponentially faster paces since the 1970s, a new category of food has emerged as the primary source of calories in industrialized countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. The new category? Ultra-processed foods.
Between foods as they exist in their natural state, which is the healthiest way to consume them, and ultra-processing them, there are a variety of techniques used to process foods.
While the worst processed foods for you diet are typically ready-to-eat and pathetically low in nutrients, there are less harmful ways to change food from into its natural state. They include washing, canning freezing, or combining it with other ingredients in baking or cooking.
Washing and bagging vegetables like lettuce and spinach make them easier to prepare and eat. Washing and bagging vegetables like lettuce and spinach make them easier to prepare and eat. Canning or freezing some fruits and vegetables can help them to stay fresh for a long time.
Pasteurizing milk and cheese lengthens their shelf life, and vacuum-packing can keep meat from spoiling.
Canning fruits in water or their own juice locks in freshness and nutrients. Added ingredients like fiber, calcium, and Vitamin D can make some foods better for you. All of these processing methods have served us well throughout the centuries, and in some cases saved us, when raw, unprocessed foods were unavailable.
Ultra-processed foods, however, have very few, if any, redeeming qualities about them.
Not only are they highly processed,they have unhealthy ingredients added to them to give them shelf-life and/or eye-appeal, and include detrimental ingredients such as salt, sugar, artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives. At least one study has found that the ultra-processed foods comprise about 60% of the Standard American Diet (SAD). Those same ingredients are in great part responsible for up to 90% of all chronic illness in this country.
In an ideal world, if we didn’t grow all our own food, we’d shop at the farmers’ markets every day for fresh, local foods, and make all our meals from scratch, with as little processing as possible. Our reality is that we live relatively far from our food sources, must by foods we can store on the shelf, and have little time to eat dinner, let alone prepare it.
So, how do we reach some sort of sensible balance that provides us with maximum nutrition for the healthiest outcome possible, and some measure of convenience?
The greater the convenience, unfortunately usually means greater amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, before we even start to address the issues of artificial colorings and preservatives.
The worst processed foods for your health are typically ready-to-eat and low in nutrients. Included among them are cookies, sugary drinks, deli meats, frozen pizzas, and salty snacks like chips, and most breakfast cereals. They may taste good, but your well-being pays a big price for them.
One effective way to bring a Standard American Diet into better balance is to watch out for and avoid Sodium (salt), Sugar, and Fats, especially trans fats.
Salt – sodium chloride [NaCl] – is often used to keep food fresh. Even if you avoid adding it to your food, if that food came from any sort of package, it probably already contains salt. The processing of foods gives Americans about 70% of their salt from processed foods and restaurant food.
Reading labels is a good way to control the amount of sodium you get. This is not necessary, of course, in the fresh produce aisle, but in any packaged food. Anything with more than 600 milligrams of salt per 100 grams of serving size is considered high, and fewer than 300 milligrams is considered low. Also beware of salt’s pseudonyms, such as monosodium glutamate or disodium phosphate. They abound in packaged foods, so be careful.
Also, be very careful with these foods:
- Pizza – one slice with ample toppings can give you half your daily suggested amount of salt
- Bread and rolls – there may not be much salt in one piece of bread, but bread is an often-eaten food.
- Sandwiches – one fast-food sandwich or burger can give you your total daily amount of salt.
- Cold cuts and cured meats – About 6 thin slices will give you ½ of your recommended daily amount.
- Canned soup – one soup can have ½ of your day’s allotment of salt.
- Burrito and taco fillings- these meats and cheeses are usually loaded with salt.
Again, reading labels can be key here. A typical adult diet has about 2000 calories. A good target is to consume than 48 grams of added sugar. Sugar hides behind many, many names on the label, like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, and turbinado sugar. Also, liquid sugars are particularly unfriendly to bodies.
Not all fats are bad, not even all saturated fats are bad. The fats found in baked goods like salty snack, and margarine, trans fats, can adversely affect your cholesterol and lead to inflammation that’s linked to heart disease and stroke, the first and third causes of death in this country, and other conditions. More than 5 grams of trans fat per 100 grams of serving is high. Furthermore, even if a packaged product’s label says it has 0 grams of trans fat, it can have up to 0.5 grams of it.
The best way to eat is with as little processing as possible – lots of varieties of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, in as close to their natural state as possible.
The best way to get closer to this way of eating is to prepare your food at home where you decide the ingredients and the amounts of them that go into it. Time is short sometimes, as or skills or interest. Frozen meals aren’t as bad as they one were, as some companies actually market to health-minded folds and use fewer unhealthy ingredients in them. Still, read the labels, or find a less processed alternative.
You can protect yourself at restaurants, too, by avoiding the ultra-processed foods. A short conversation or an on-line preview of the menu can alert you to which foods are made on site with minimal additives and pre-packaging. Ordering dressings, sauces, and condiments on the side is another self-protection method.
Processed foods have been around for several hundred years.They are convenient and give us access to foods that would otherwise perish in transit.
Moderation is the key to enjoying them without compromising your health. Check the labels, always, especially for salt, sugar, and fat amounts.
Always make sure to make fresh, simple, minimally processed ingredients the focus of your diet.