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Guide to Understanding Processed Foods

"Processed food" is often obscured and misunderstood. So what actually are processed foods and potential risks? Do they have any health benefits? This is what you should know.

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"Processed food" is a loose term generally thrown around to validate the rising of America's growing obesity epidemic.

Processed foods are thought to be "junk foods," bagged and sold as chips, cookies, and other packaged products. Fast food is assumed to be processed as well, though people tend to vacate drive thrus based on convenience and taste.

Unlike popular belief, some processed foods can be filled with nutrients. However, the general consumption is on overly processed foods rich in calories and undesirable ingredients.

So what really are processed foods? What are the potential dangers and health benefits?

What Are Processed Foods?

When it truly comes down to understanding processed foods, the word "processed" is often obscured and misunderstood. Processed is actually how the food has been prepared and packaged, whether made by a manufacturer, chef, or even yourself.

Broadly speaking, processed foods are essentially all products that have been manipulated in some way, shape, or form. These creations and changes may take place in a home kitchen or food lab.

The preparation can be further broken down into minimally and highly-processed products. Below is suggestive of minimally and highly processed foods, numbered from the least to most processed:

1. The most minimally processed foods are products that are pre-prepped for convenient use, including chopped veggies and roasted nuts.

2. Canned products (tuna, beans, tomatoes, etc.) are captured to lock-in nutrients and flavors at their peak.

3. Some canned and jarred products are processed a step further, especially to enhance flavor and preservation. This includes tomato sauce containing added sugar and salt.

4. Foods that are ready-to-eat and wrapped are more heavily processed. Think of your "go-to" snacks such as crackers, chips, and boxed cookies.

5. Frozen and pre-made meals are the most processed form available. Mostly found in the freezer section, products include pizzas and microwavable entrees.

6. The chemical structure of the food is entirely changed or created in a food lab, including the popular Impossible Burger.

The Worst Processed Foods for You

The dangers of processed foods mostly stem from the degree of manipulation a food has undergone. The addition of certain ingredients, including salt and trans fat, into food products can also be worrisome.

Below identifies common ingredients added to foods and describes their potential harm.

1. Processed foods tend to be loaded with added sugar.

Sugar is no stranger in the food supply, as it is widely found in a variety of sources. Sweet treats and desserts are not the only culprits of sugar, though. Added sugar also hides in sauces, salad dressings, breads, and several other products.

Though the body is equipped to handle sugar, too much of it has been associated with weight gain and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends keeping added sugar intake to less than 38 grams for men daily. Women should not exceed 25 grams of added sugar.

As a general, yet overwhelming reference, a 12-ounce can of Cola provides 39 grams of sugar. That exceeds the recommended amount for both men and women just for one drink!

2. Fiber is often a missing nutritional component in processed foods.

Refined carbohydrate, mostly found in highly processed foods, is essentially stripped or bleached wheat or other grains. The processing technique strips away key nutrients and fiber found in its untouched, natural form. Breakfast cereals and breads are a prime example of this.

All-in-all, processed foods generally lack fiber, which may have negative effects on health. People who consume adequate fiber are shown to have healthier body mass indexes (BMIs) compared to those with minimal fiber. Low-fiber diets can also increase the risk of colon cancer, hemorrhoids, and other digestive issues.

3. Processed foods can still be high in trans fats and other oils.

The concern comes not only from the amount of fat in processed foods, but the type of fat. Specifically, trans fat has consistently shown to harm health, including increasing the risk of heart disease.

While there is an ongoing effort to eliminate trans fat, it can still be found in the food supply. Trans fats are also recognized as "(partially) hydrogenated oil" or "hydrogenation" and are widely found in chips, fried foods, and pastries.

4. Sodium tends to be high in processed foods.

Salt is often used in the food supply, mostly to enhance flavor and prolong shelf-life. Sodium provokes danger, especially if managing high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

Unmanaged hypertension can ultimately damage the heart and arteries, and raise the risk of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and stroke.

5. The addition of such ingredients makes processed foods appealing and addictive, but potentially harmful to health.

Processed foods are often crafted to fulfill the taste buds want of sweet and salty flavors. When the brain believes a food is appetizing, it is human nature to keep gravitating to such products.

But consistently seeking out processed foods (rich in sugars, fats, and salt) can pack on calories. Processed foods are not necessarily apt to trigger illness and disease in an instant. Consistent intake, though, will more than likely lead to weight gain.

Ultimately, a calorie-rich diet lacking nutrients can ultimately increase the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Eating processed meat is one of the most common health concerns relative to its link to cancer.

List of Processed Meats

Meat comes in many different forms, including white and red meats. It is red and processed meats, however, that tends to be stigmatized related to potential health concerns.

Red meats are animal muscle meats such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. These meats can also be processed using salting, curing, and fermenting process to enhance flavor and increase preservation.

Processed meats can include both red and white meats such as:

• Bacon

• Hot dogs

• Corned beef

• Breakfast sausages

• Turkey bacon

• Deli meats

The World Health Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) suggests red meat is probably carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. This is mostly specific to colorectal cancer with some evidence for pancreatic and prostate cancers.

Are There Any Healthy Processed Foods?

Though regularly feasting on highly processed foods can create dangerous health consequences, there are some positive qualities of processed foods. Some processed foods are fortified with key nutrients the body needs as well.

Here are how some processing techniques can enhance nutritional quality and convenience of basic foods:

• Milk fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient that works with calcium to augment bone health.

• Yogurt inoculated with healthy bacteria, or probiotics, proven to support gut health.

• Salad greens sealed for a freshness and convenience factor.

• Frozen fruits and vegetables that can be kept on hand to blend in a smoothie, added to pasta sauces, etc.

• Chia seeds bagged and sold on store shelves, which can add fiber, protein, and healthy fats to a number of recipes.

Healthy Alternatives to Processed Foods

When it comes down to choosing packaged products, pay most attention to the nutrition facts and ingredient lists. Shy away from products rich in fat, sugar, and sodium or consider preparing your own variations for tighter ingredient control.

Healthy alternatives to overly processed foods may include the following:

1. Homemade Salad Dressing

Most salad dressings are laden in added sugar and unhealthy oil. To lively up those salad greens, prepare a homemade vinaigrette.

Simply mix 1 part olive oil to 2 to 3 parts vinegar of choice. Add garlic, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper to taste as desired.

2. Greek Yogurt Parfait

While yogurts tend to be rich in nutrients, flavored varieties are often loaded with sugar. To withhold the nutritional value of yogurt, choose a protein-packed Greek yogurt and create a nutritious parfait.

Top plain Greek yogurt with favorite fruit, including fresh berries or chopped apples. Drizzle with a dollop of peanut butter, drizzle of honey, and sprinkle of ground cinnamon.

3. Overnight Oats

Boxed cereals are a go-to breakfast item in most households. Unfortunately, they tend to be laden in calories and lack nutritional value.

Preparing overnight oats makes for a swift morning while gifting the body with nutrients to kickstart the day.

Taken together, aim to include more nutrient-dense foods to create a healthy diet. Lower the intake of overly processed foods, but enjoy in moderation when or if you do purchase a box of cookies!

Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on December 17, 2019. Updated on December 18, 2019.

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