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Nutrition Notes

Karen Lentner, MA, RD, LDNKaren Lentner, MA, RD, LDNProcessed Foods: How Bad Are They?

Do you ever hear people say they want to stop eating “processed foods”? Do you know what this actually means? Have you decided you can’t eliminate processed foods since fresh foods may be too expensive? Let’s take a look at what they are and what are the best choices.

What are processed foods? Processed foods have been altered in some way prior to buying or preparing the foods. This includes food that has been canned, frozen, cooked, preserved, and fortified with added flavors or vitamins. Once we’ve cooked or prepared our food, we are processing it. There is a huge range from minimally processed to heavily processed foods. Of course unprocessed foods directly from the farm are ideal, but this may not be possible for many of us.

It is not necessary to avoid minimally processed foods as the processing may be done to lock in freshness and nutritional quality while the food is at its ideal ripeness and nutritional content. 

It is not necessary to avoid minimally processed foods as the processing may be done to lock in freshness and nutritional quality while the food is at its ideal ripeness and nutritional content. In other words, vegetables may be canned or frozen at the peak of harvest season, or bagged or cut at a farm just prior to selling. Ground coffee, bagged vegetables, nuts, and seeds may be minimally processed at the perfect time for your benefit and ease. Other examples of beneficial processing may be fortified milk or juices with vitamin C, D, and calcium; or added fiber to breads; or cereals with added whole grains and seeds. When fresh fruit is not available or expensive, canned fruit packed in its own juice or water is an excellent alternative. Canned fruit with added sugars, corn syrup, and preservatives, on the other hand, are more processed and should be limited. 

Instead of asking if a food is processed, ask how and how much it is processed. One way of checking if foods are more heavily processed is to read food labels. Minimally processed fruits, vegetables, and meats would be packaged exclusively as the fruit or vegetable, without added ingredients. Additional processing includes the addition of sugar, salt, sauces, artificial color, flavorings, antibiotics, nitrates, chemical fillers, and other preservatives. If the ingredient list is long and you cannot identify them, it’s probably heavily processed and should be limited.

Sugars may be added to foods to improve flavor, color, or consistency. Ingredients are listed on products in order of quantity. Tomatoes may be listed first on the ketchup label, then distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, and artificial flavoring. If you’re watching your intake of sugar or salt, this should be limited.

What you eat affects your health. Decrease your intake of highly processed food and reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Do your own cooking, include whole foods with limited additives such as vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Choose fresh meats, limit prepared and processed meals, meats, hot dogs, canned soups, and frozen pizza. For a nutritious meal, consider joining us at one of our dining centers (find a complete list on LifePathMa.org) or call LifePath to set up Meals on Wheels at 413-773-5555, X1230; or 978-544-2259, X1230.