Diabetes Diet: What Is Processed Food, Anyway?
It is possible to converse about the pitfalls of eating too much processed food, only to discover the other person doesn’t really know what processed food is.
Processed food is difficult to discuss since almost every item purchased at a grocery store has been processed, but some foods are altered by processing more than others. It's the degree, and types of alteration foods undergo during processing that makes them more or less healthy options.
Spectrum of Processed Foods
Processing includes any steps taken to prepare a food for market. The only unprocessed foods are those that come into our kitchen directly from a garden, bush, or tree.
Minimally processed foods are prepared for sale and consumption using very few steps and without significantly altering the food. For instance, sorting, washing, and bagging a variety of salad greens is a minimal process, as is sorting, washing, and flash freezing green beans. Eggs, milk, and fresh meats are also considered minimally processed.
The prepared foods many of us commonly purchase such as pastas, breads, and canned soups obviously require a bit more processing. However, some of these moderately processed items - those that are considered healthiest - are made with only a few minimally altered ingredients.
(TIP: If a packaged food product has seven ingredients or less that can be pronounced without the aid of a chemistry dictionary, it’s likely a minimally or moderately processed item.)
At the far end of the food preparation spectrum are the “ultra-processed” foods. These are products that besides containing oils, fats, salt, and sugar are made with ingredients not traditionally used in cooking. When doctors or nutritionists recommend limiting the intake of processed foods, these are the items they most refer to.
Ultra-processed foods are those that have been significantly altered in the manufacturing process. They can contain artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and other additives to enhance the food’s appeal. Chemicals and preservatives are typically used to create a preternatural shelf-life, and sometimes ingredients are added to hide undesirable qualities of the end product.
These foods tend to be high in added sugar, which are sugars added on top of what the product’s ingredients naturally contain. Researchers found that 21 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods are from added sugars, and 90 percent of the added sugar intake in the U.S. comes from eating ultra-processed foods.
Products that are ultra-processed include many breakfast cereals, chips and other snacks, sodas, pizzas, packaged baked goods, instant sauces or soups, and microwaveable frozen meals. If a food’s ingredient list is lengthy and reads like a science experiment, it’s likely ultra-processed.
Finding A Healthy Balance
There are some convenience food manufacturers making an effort to limit or eliminate artificial additives, chemicals, and preservatives. A few of these companies also use organically grown produce in their products. So, it’s not fair to lump all ultra-processed items together. However, convenience foods should supplement our diet, and not define it.
All of us need to balance our love of convenience with the requirements of good nutrition, making sure our body gets plenty of what it needs, and not too much of what it doesn’t.