We throw a lot of terms around not really giving much thought as to what they actually mean, and “processed foods” are one of them. Processed foods often get the blame for everything from our nations’ obesity problems, behavior issues, type 2 diabetes, increased cancer diagnosis, to high blood pressure. The truth is, most of our foods are processed to some degree– there is a spectrum from minimally processed to heavily processed that should be taken into account upon consumption. Obviously consuming the heavily processed with moderation, caution and awareness. Everything from boxed macaroni and cheese to an apple has been processed to some extent.
With a little know-how you can learn how to sift through the garbage and eat a real food, minimally processed, nutritious, well balanced diet.
1) The Spectrum – What is Processed Food? On a scale of 1-10 (1 being the minimum-10 being the most heavily processed foods)
*Minimally Processed Food (1) processed foods include pre-cut and packaged vegetables, nuts, dried fruits and seeds. It is the process of prepared convenience.
*(2-3) includes both canned and frozen vegetables, fruits and fish (tuna & salmon) which are packaged at their peak stage of ripeness. These typically are processed in order to preserve their optimal freshness.
*(5) foods that contain added flavors, preservatives, sweeteners and/or artificial colors. This includes some oils, spices, yogurts, baking mixes, jellies, jams, and fruit sauces.
* (7-8) foods that are more heavily processed such as lunch meat, crackers, chips, packaged cookies, granola, breakfast cereal, energy bars and most boxed foods of convenience.
* Heavily Processed Food (10) The most heavily processed foods are those that are pre-made – ready to heat and serve; such as, microwave entrees, frozen pizza and macaroni.
**Generally speaking if it has a label and comes in a bag, box, jar or can it has been processed to some extent.
2) Take Note of Sodium, Sugar and Fat Percentages
We will all consume a fair amount of processed food in our lifetime. Moderation and making conscientious decisions will be the key to making an educated choice.
What are do all those food labels and big words mean anyways?
3) Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
The average person consumes way more than the DRA (Daily Recommended Allowance) of sugar. There is an over- abundance added to our food supply. You might be surprised to find out that sugar is disguised with names such as maltose, corn syrup, sucrose, fruit juice concentrate , and cane juice just to name a few. Sugar is literally hiding in the unlikeliest of places these days – everything from that beautiful brown tone of your bread to that yummy, yogurt you ate at lunch – it is literally in everything.
Try buying items plain-such as yogurt and oatmeal, and adding your own sugar substitute. Honey, agave and maple syrup are all good options as these are “processed” naturally. However, sugar is in fact still sugar and too much of any one thing is never going to make it good for you, so use sparingly. Again, moderation being the key component in all of this.
Many canned items such as soups, vegetables, and sauces have an insanely high salt content. The salt added to these products is often times used as a preservative to maintain freshness and increase the overall taste and/or texture of a product. A high sodium intake has been linked to increased hypertension and blood pressure, and the cause is likely not from a heavy seasoning hand. In fact as much as 3/4th of our sodium comes from packaged foods.
Look for foods that are labeled “low sodium” or “no sodium added” and simply add your own seasoning to them. Another option when buy something like canned beans would be to rinse them under cold water before use.
5) Fat (low-fat and fat-free food options)
I’m not sure where we ever came up with the idea that fat was bad, but nothing could farther from the truth. Good fats are actually really good for you (avocado, coconut, omega-3 rich foods). Why do you think pediatricians recommend whole milk for babies once they are done nursing or off formula – brain development, right? Therefore, why would a “no fat option” ever be a good idea for an adult? Take some time to ponder the increased rate of Alzheimer’s disease and you might start to think differently. When something is labeled “no fat” or “low fat” those options are almost always higher in sugar or sodium (see #2 and #3) to compensate for the lost flavors.
Eat the real deal. I’m not saying go hog wild, but you are better off choosing a whole fat option over a manufactured heavily processed alternative any day.
6) Artificial Flavors and Dyes
O.K., so here is the thing, these have not been around for that long and, in countries outside of the US, many of these have already been banned – so why are we still eating them? I knowingly don’t want to be part of this “experiment” do you? *According to the American Academy of Pediatricians (APP) “consumption of food dyes has been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactivity”. While, it is still being debated as to if these things “cause” ADHD it has undoubtedly been accepted that symptoms are heightened upon consumption.
There isn’t one – whoever decided blue yogurt was ok to eat?
7) Healthy Cooking Oils
I think cooking oils can be a bit confusing personally, so I will try to make this simple. Remember however while not all fat is bad (see #5) clearly not all fats are made equal either. Most blended oils have not been around that long and are extracted with the use of chemicals and genetically modified in some instances. Many vegetable oils are made up of a combination of hydrogenated oil shortenings making them very high in trans fats – the unhealthiest fat of all.
Your best oil options are those high in monounsaturated fat and Omega-3 fatty acids [heart smart options], I recommend sticking with your traditional cooking oils such as extra virgin olive, grape-seed, coconut, and butter. These are all much better options in comparison to their factory born often chemically extracted counterparts – canola, soybean and shortening just to name a few. Error on the side of caution with gluten free products, as they are not necessarily better for you. Consider going flour free for a week and see how your body responds to this change.
8) GMO- Factory Farming Practices
So, I could literally go on all day about GMO [genetically modified organisms] and will likely be doing a post in the future on them, but for now, know that this practice is fairly new and severely under tested and researched in my opinion. We are the lab rats. GMO practices have been banned in places like Japan and Europe until further testing is done to prove their safety. However, Canada, USA, and Argentina still continue these practices for human and animal consumption deeming them as “safe“. The choice is ultimately yours, but the practice of genetically modifying/altering our food source from the initial state of its’ birth to me is the ultimate processed food no-no. Unfortunately, we are at an extreme disadvantage as a consumer due to lack of labeling regularizations. Biotech guru’s like Monsanto have lobbied heavily to prevent labeling restrictions. A major reason for the lack of labeling comes down to money. In a recent CBS poll, it was estimated 87% of Americans want GMO’s to be labeled but up to 53% say they would not purchase them if they were – hence leading to a dramatic decrease in profits. The US produces the greatest amount of GMO’s.*
This is not a black and white answer, but knowledge is power so do your homework! I would encourage you whenever possible, to purchase items that are in fact labeled, advocate for harsher labeling practices
9) Wild Caught Fish and Meat -Versus Farm Raised
This is another confusing and often times misleading topic. Farm raised fish and factory farming – these sound innocent, right? However, what it really means is fish and animals living in quarters that are less than ideal. These fish and animals are often raised commercially in tanks and controlled pens-throughout the country. These compact living conditions increase the risk of disease, toxins and antibiotic use. They are in a sense being “processed” or bred to grow faster, bigger, and more frequently than ever intended to do so. “Animals on factory farms are regarded as commodities to be exploited for profit.” *Many of these animals never see the light of day until they are heading to the processor for butchering – many of the diets of these animals consist of corn and other heavily genetically modified foods (see #8,) opposed to the beautiful green pasture fed animals that you might be imagining. “Farm raised food production” dominates much of our meat food supply.
Know where your food is coming from – purchase meat from local farms and get to know their practices. I also would encourage you to buy wild caught fish whenever possible.
10) Imitation Foods
This would be any food “pretending” to be its “real food” counter-part. Having kids that are dairy free, the first ones that comes to mind for me are imitation cheese, margarine [imitating butter] and pancake syrup [simply sugar and dye] (see #3 & #6) just to name a few. Just because it smells like a banana, blueberry, crab or lemon does not mean that it is. Do you have any idea how many chemicals were used to “imitate” that natural real food counterpart?
Buy the real deal. Buy real foods in their original state. Use butter, maple syrup, fresh wild caught fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and the bottom line, if you are questioning where it came from or how it was made – leave it on the shelf.
11) Fast Food and Convenience Foods
I think we have pretty much covered this-but, “slow and steady wins the race“. We as a culture have adopted a faster and more is better mentality – how very sad. This could not be farther from the truth. If it’s fast and convenient – (see #1-9) and ask yourself how this item might have been altered from its original state.
Skip the “fast food” places all together and whenever possible, keep a well-supplied pantry and freezer to help avoid impulse “fast snack” food options. Plan ahead, and choose nuts, seeds and dried fruits as a quick fall back option.
12) Refined Grains and Whole Grains
Large grains are finely crushed into flours. These same flours are then added to a large quantity of our processed foods; everything from breakfast cereals, breads, snack cakes, cookies to pizza dough. Ground grains act like sugar when in our bodies. As a nation, our cravings for these foods have greatly increased over the years. This, combined with the convenience and accessibility of these items, is thought to be a leading cause of our significant increase in diet related issues.
Choose whole grains whenever possible-such as wild rice, quinoa, and millet. These heartier grains have more complex structures making them slower to digest. Sprouted grains are also a good option as these are quite easy to digest increasing the likelihood that their nutrients will be absorbed more quickly. When baking, replace refined flours with nut flours or seed mill. Get creative in the kitchen – this is an easy way to boost the nutritional value in some of your favorite recipes.
13) The Freezer, Fridge and Pantry Challenge
The saying “if you can’t say it- don’t eat” rule applies here. There are some big, hard to pronounce words in our food no doubt. Would you find those items in your freezer, fridge or pantry? Would you cook with them? If the answer is “no“, then skip past that item and move on.
Buy the real deal. Consume, purchase and cook with only the purest ingredients or make your own items from scratch to better control the ingredients.