Consensus is a rare thing in the world of food and nutrition science, but one concept that has stood the test of time is that eating processed foods tends to be unhealthy, especially in large amounts.
The level of processing involved does matter, and one popular classification system groups food products into four categories to describe the journey they’ve undergone:
These are altered in ways that enhance preservation and food safety but don’t affect the nutritional content, including freezing, fermentation, grinding, refrigerating, drying, vacuum-packing or cleaning. Most frozen fruits and vegetables, refrigerated meats and milks, whole grains, nuts and legumes fall here.
Processed culinary ingredients
Foods that are ground or pressed from the source in order to be used to prepare minimally processed foods, including butter, oils, herbs and spices.
Products made of ingredients from the first two groups, many canned vegetables, fruits, meats and fish are here, as well as some cheeses and fresh bread.
These are the foods processed with artificial colors, flavors and chemicals to increase shelf-stability and palatability or preserve texture. Manufacturing these is usually a multi-step process involving many ingredients and creates food which is easily packaged and usually served with little to no prior preparation.
These foods predominantly incorporate much higher amounts of sodium, fat (including trans fat), sugar or artificial sweeteners, chemicals with difficult-to-pronounce names and other ingredients which are red flags to many nutritionists and other experts. Some are also devoid of any vitamins, fiber or other beneficial nutrients, which makes them “empty calories.” Packaged snacks like chips and crackers, frozen meals including pizza, cookies and candy, sugary drinks, cured meats and lunch meats are most likely to be ultra-processed.
Ultra-processed foods are the ones you’re going to want to avoid. Here are some strategies for dodging the damage they can cause:
Add whole or fresh foods to otherwise processed meals
This is as easy as having a banana or apple with your bowl of cereal or a side salad with your frozen pizza. This will supply some of the nutrients that may be missing from your processed food and start you thinking outside the “box.”
So much of processed food’s appeal is based on convenience and spur-of-the-moment decision making, so anticipate when you and your family will need snacks and make sure healthy, fresh food such as carrots and celery, plain yogurt or favorite fruits and veggies will be available.
Substitute for or make your own version of processed foods
Pop plain popcorn on the stove rather than in a paper bag in the microwave. Swirl your own salad dressing out of oil, vinegar, and spices (or maybe a little blended fruit). Make dinners ahead and freeze them for the week ahead. Bake your own potato chips!
Phase-out soft drinks
Whether they’re sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or calorie-free sweeteners, they lack the health of water, coffee, tea and milks (dairy and plant-based).