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Sometimes you need your meal to outlast your New Year’s resolutions — which, as it’s May, have almost definitely been abandoned by now — and processed foods offer a solution. However, processed foods are often seen as inferior to unprocessed foods.

The term implies that a packaged food item contains many ingredients, possibly including artificial colors, flavors or chemical additives. Known as convenience or pre-prepared foods, processed foods are linked to the obesity epidemic and the increasing rates of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, according to an article from the Harvard School of Public Health. However, definitions of processed food vary widely. Unsweetened applesauce is classified differently than glow in the dark mac n cheese.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines processed food as any food altered from its natural state, involving processes such as washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other modifications. These foods may also include added ingredients like preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other approved additives like salt, sugars and fats.

The Institute of Food Technologists adds more processes like storing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, concentrating, microwaving and packaging. Basically everything except tapped with a magic wand. According to these definitions, nearly all supermarket foods are processed to some extent. Since food starts to degrade and lose nutrients immediately after harvest, even apples in the produce aisle undergo multiple processing steps before being sold. Therefore, it’s useful for health and wellness professionals to differentiate between various levels of food processing.

Understanding the nuances of food processing allows health professionals and dietitians to guide patients, clients and consumers in balancing their diets, emphasizing the inclusion of minimally processed foods while making judicious choices about more processed options. By addressing myths (e.g., the belief that all processed foods are devoid of nutritional value), dietitians can offer evidence-based recommendations, enhancing clients’ understanding and acceptance of healthy processed foods. A deep understanding of food processing allows dietitians to tailor their advice to individual client needs, considering factors that may have more twists and turns than a bag of pretzels. These may be health conditions, lifestyle and preferences.

Types of food processing

A widely used system to classify processed foods is the NOVA classification, introduced in 2009. This system categorizes foods based on their degree of processing and the purpose of these modifications into four groups:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed foods include natural edible parts of plants and animals. Minimally processed foods are slightly altered for better storage, preparation and consumption without significantly changing their nutritional content. Examples include cleaning, grinding, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing and vacuum-packaging. This category encompasses many fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, plain yogurt, fresh and dried pasta, tea, coffee and milk.

2. Processed culinary ingredients

This category includes ingredients derived from minimally processed foods through pressing, refining, grinding or milling, used in cooking and seasoning but not typically consumed alone. Examples are plant, seed and nut oils; vinegar; honey; and maple syrup without added flavors or stabilizers.

3. Processed foods

Processed foods have added salt, sugar and/or fat to enhance durability, flavor and texture. They come from the first two groups and typically contain 2-3 ingredients. Examples include some canned fruits and vegetables, certain cheeses, freshly made bread and canned fish. These foods are generally ready to eat without further preparation.

4. Ultra-processed foods

Who doesn’t love a good mystery ingredient now and then? Ultra-processed foods, also known as highly processed foods, contain multiple ingredients and undergo several processing steps. They include artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, thickeners, emulsifiers and sweeteners to improve shelf stability, texture and taste. Examples are sugary drinks, cookies, chips, breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners and luncheon meats. These foods often replace minimally processed foods in diets, contributing to low fiber and nutrient intake. Studies, like one using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that ultra-processed foods make up about 60% of total calories in the American diet, correlating with the rise in obesity.

Is processed food unhealthy?

Processed foods are common in most households and offer both benefits and drawbacks. While processed foods have their advantages, it’s important to choose wisely and balance them with minimally processed and whole foods for a healthier diet.

Pros

Frozen, pre-chopped and canned ingredients save time in the kitchen. Some processed and fortified foods also provide essential nutrients that might be difficult to obtain in busy households or those with limited budgets. Processing can retain or even enhance nutrient content. For instance, protein is generally preserved, while B vitamins and iron can be added back if lost during processing. Fruits and vegetables frozen shortly after harvesting can retain most of their vitamin C.

Historically, fortification of foods with specific nutrients has prevented deficiencies and related health problems. Examples include iron and B vitamins in infant cereals to prevent anemia, vitamin D in milk to prevent rickets, folic acid in wheat flour to prevent birth defects and iodine in salt to prevent goiter.

Methods like pasteurization, cooking and drying can destroy or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Additives such as emulsifiers help maintain the texture of foods, such as preventing peanut butter from separating. Processing also delays spoilage, preserves sensory qualities (flavor, texture, aroma and appearance) and increases meal preparation convenience. Food processing additionally plays a crucial role in ensuring a stable and predictable food supply, thus maintaining food and nutrient security.

Cons

While some moderately processed foods can be part of a balanced diet, highly processed options may pose health risks, according to WebMD. Many processed foods contain high levels of salt, fat and sugar to enhance flavor and extend shelf life to beyond the next zombie apocalypse. It can be as challenging for consumers to identify these additives as figuring out their taxes, leading to unintended overconsumption. Highly processed foods can also pack a surprising number of calories due to their high ingredient count. For instance, a small cookie might contain as many calories as a cup of green beans. This caloric density can contribute to overeating.

Research suggests a correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cancer, attributed to the abundance of food additives present in these products. Highly processed foods often lack essential nutrients as they are stripped during processing. While some processed foods are fortified with fiber, vitamins and minerals, restoring their nutritional value is challenging once natural nutrients are removed. Processed foods are easier for the body to digest compared to their natural counterparts. This means fewer calories are burned during digestion, potentially contributing to weight gain. Experts estimate that processed foods require around half as many calories to digest as natural foods, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight with a diet high in high-calorie processed options.

Opting for minimally processed foods whenever possible and being mindful of ingredient lists can help clients mitigate the risks associated with highly processed foods, supporting overall health and well-being.

Debunking myths about processed foods

Should clients avoid all processed foods, and do all of them negatively impact health? The International Food Additives Council addresses several myths with facts to debunk them.

Myth: Processed food is not real food.

Fact: Any food altered from its natural state is considered processed. This includes cutting, chopping, cooking, freezing, drying, salting, fermenting or any other alteration. Thus, even seemingly natural foods like frozen vegetables, bread and yogurt fall under the processed category. However, all processed foods originate from real plants or animals.

Myth: Consumers should avoid all processed foods.

Fact: Most health and wellness professionals don’t recommend avoiding all processed foods. Processing can enhance the nutritional value and safety of foods, making them more accessible and affordable. It also enables consumption of otherwise difficult-to-digest or unavailable healthy foods like tofu, beans, pulses, legumes and oatmeal. Avoiding all processed foods would mean foregoing staples like coffee, chocolate and wine.

Myth: Processed foods contain no nutritional value.

Fact: Not all processed foods lack nutritional value. Some, including ultra-processed ones, can be low in sugar, fat and sodium and are considered healthy. Canned fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread and soymilk are examples. Processing can even increase nutritional value; for instance, canning enhances the bioavailability of lycopene in tomatoes and fortification adds nutrients like iron, folic acid, B-vitamins and fiber to cereals and breads.

Myth: Processed foods negatively impact health.

Fact: A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in August 2023 demonstrated that a diet primarily composed of ultra-processed foods aligned with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans actually scored higher on the diet quality scale compared to the average American diet. Foods such as flour tortillas, rotisserie chicken and dried apricots were included, showing that adherence to dietary guidelines can be achieved with a variety of food choices.

Myth: There are no benefits to buying or eating ultra-processed food.

Fact: Certain processed and ultra-processed foods provide key nutrients, including dietary fiber, often overlooked in typical diets. They also offer convenience, affordability, longer shelf life and preferred taste for some consumers. A 2023 consumer Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council found that convenience, affordability, shelf life and taste were the main reasons why 8 in 10 consumers keep processed foods in their household.

Ideas for a minimally processed meal plan

Incorporating more fresh or minimally processed ingredients into consumers’ meals can be rewarding, offering fresher flavors, increased nutrients and fewer additives. Here’s a brief guide to help consumers get started with a day of minimally processed meals:

Breakfast:

  • Whole grain bread: Have clients choose bread where whole grain flour is the main ingredient, minimizing additives and preservatives.
  • Healthy spreads: Replace butter spreads with mashed avocado or natural nut/seed butters. 
  • Low-sugar cereals: Opt for plain steel-cut or large flake oats, plain shredded wheat and low-sugar mueslis. Enhance consumers’ cereals with nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and fresh diced fruit for added nutrition.

Lunch/Dinner:

  • Home-cooked meals: Clients should cut back on takeout and cook more meals at home using fresh ingredients or minimally processed frozen or canned items that are low in added sugar, sodium and saturated fat.
  • Ingredient choices: Use fresh poultry and fish, dried or low-sodium canned legumes, dry or frozen plain whole grains (such as brown or wild rice, farro, millet or quinoa), fresh or frozen unseasoned vegetables and a variety of herbs, spices and vinegars.
  • Bulk cooking: Cook in bulk and freeze extra portions for ready-to-reheat meals. Leftovers from dinner can make a convenient and nutritious lunch the next day. If consumers are new to cooking at home, they should start with some planning and experimentation.

Snacks:

  • Healthy options: Enjoy fresh washed and sliced fruits, raw sliced vegetables with hummus, plain or low-sugar yogurt, unsalted nuts, roasted chickpeas or other beans, edamame, overnight oats or homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
  • Beverages: Drink plain water, which consumers can enjoy chilled with ice, warmed or infused with fresh mint, citrus slices or a piece of ginger.

Eating out:

  • Smart choices: Avoid highly processed fast food like fried chicken, burgers and fries. Instead, choose restaurants that offer fresh vegetables or salads, lean proteins like fish, poultry, tofu or legumes and whole grains prepared without excessive salt and fat. Last week, the ARC Health and Wellness Community released a members only article on which fast food chains are healthiest, which dives deeper into this topic.
  • Menu research: Clients should look up menus online when possible to make healthier food selections quickly and easily.

Long story short

Food processing encompasses a wide range of techniques, from basic methods like freezing and milling to the use of additives that enhance shelf life or improve taste. Generally, it is best to focus on unprocessed or minimally processed foods in consumers’ daily diets. However, the decision to consume processed and even ultra-processed foods is a personal choice, with both benefits and drawbacks associated with each type. The Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list are valuable tools for deciding when to include more processed foods in consumers’ diets. As the variety of processed and ultra-processed foods continues to grow, some products can be a useful addition to a balanced diet. The key is to make informed choices and prioritize foods that offer the best nutritional benefits.

In conclusion, understanding the complexities of food processing is essential for health and wellness professionals to provide accurate and personalized dietary guidance. By integrating these ideas into consumers’ daily routines, your clients can enjoy the benefits of minimally processed foods without completely eliminating processed options from their diets. Ultimately, as always, the key is to tell them to strike a balance between the shelled peanuts they’re snacking on at the baseball game this summer and the peanut butter candy their kids are bringing home from their end-of-year parties. Health and wellness professionals should encourage the consumption of fresh, minimally processed foods while recognizing the role that certain processed foods can play in a convenient, nutritious diet.

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