Expert Health Articles

Inside Scoop on Processed Foods

Martha GonzalesMartha Gonzales

Blanchard Valley Hospital, Clinical Nutrition Manager

Even though they can be found in every section of the grocery store, produce included, processed foods often get a bad reputation. This is likely because processed foods are typically thought to only be items such as macaroni and cheese, frozen pizzas and microwave dinners. However, even something as simple as bagged spinach is considered a processed food.

Processed foods range from minimally processed such as cut vegetables and roasted nuts to heavily processed such as frozen or pre-made meals. In the middle of the spectrum fall ready-to-eat foods including crackers, deli meat, bread, breakfast cereals and other similar items. While some of these items should be consumed sparingly, others can be incorporated into a healthy diet.

Some minimally processed foods such as pre-cut vegetables and fruits are a convenient way to incorporate nutritious food into a healthy diet. Ready-to-eat processed foods including milk and juice can be a part of a healthy diet because they are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Breakfast cereals may also be a good choice because they are often fortified with fiber or other vitamins and minerals.

When determining if a processed food can be a part of a healthy diet it is important for consumers to read the nutrition facts label to look for hidden sugar, fat and sodium (salt). These ingredients are sometimes added to processed foods to prolong their shelf life, contribute to the food’s structure or enhance their flavor. Thus, a diet high in processed foods can lead to consumers eating more than the recommended amount of sugar, fat and salt.

Sugar can be hidden in things other than processed sweets including breads, pasta sauces and cereal. To determine if there are added sugars in a product, review the ingredients list and look for added sugars within the first two or three ingredients. Added sugars include sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, maltose, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate and honey.

Added fat provides a longer shelf-live and gives food stability. Many manufacturers have begun to limit and even remove trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol levels, from their products. While this is a step in the right direction, it is still important for consumers to look at the nutrition label for added fat.

Salt is often added to processed foods to act as a preservative and to enhance taste and texture.  While most canned vegetables, soups and beans have added salt they also contain essential nutrients. Looking for “reduced/low sodium” on labels and rinsing canned beans and vegetables are ways to decrease their overall salt content.

Since processed foods are often higher in calories due to the added fat and sugar it is important to eat them in moderation. Looking at the nutrition facts label can help consumers to determine the overall nutrition content of a particular food item.