Plate-Wise •  7/20/2020

The 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Processed Foods

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Three Glass Jars of Vegetables

Food terminology is complex. In a world where terms like processed, pasteurized, refined and hydrogenated are used in commercials and on nutrition labels, it can be difficult to make sense of which foods are right for you and your family. Today, we’ll look at one common term: processed.

Let’s start with one of the most common questions about processed foods. Are processed foods unhealthy? The short answer is no. The nutrition of processed foods depends on what is being preserved and the process required to preserve it, but little on the simple fact that they were processed in the first place. Check out the following five truths about processed foods, and you can decide for yourself.

5 Truths About Processed Foods

1. Processing means altered: Before we go further, let’s define the term “processed.” Processed food is simply any food that has been altered mechanically or chemically to change or preserve it.1 In fact, you’ve probably processed food yourself at home. Canning, freezing, baking and dehydrating are all homespun processing methods you’ve probably used before.

2. You know and use processed foods each day: While all of us are aware of traditionally “heavily processed” foods, such as sugary drinks, pizzas and pastries, many processed foods are beneficial staples we use each day. Take, for instance, olive oil: Olives are pressed and mechanically refined to provide us with the cooking essential we know and love.

3. Processing can make foods more nutritious: Many foods, such as beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D, are more nutritious because of processing. Other items like canned tomatoes are high in calcium, iron and the antioxidant lycopene — a direct and beneficial result of processing.

4. Processing can help keep our food safe: Nobody wants to try their luck with spoiled meat or rotten milk. Processing foods can help preserve our groceries and make them work harder for us, allowing us to store and save ingredients until we need them. Some processing procedures also reduce the risk of harmful bacteria in our food: Pasteurized milk is a great example.

5. You can process your own food: One good way to ensure you receive nutritious benefits from processed food is to take the process into your own hands. For instance, by starting your own garden, you’ll be able to can, freeze and preserve much of what you harvest. If you don’t have space for a garden, consider something smaller — starting a container tomato plant or learning how to pickle vegetables are two easy options.

Instead of using processed as an exclusionary label when deciding on the foods that do and don’t end up in your shopping cart, take a moment to break down complex food terminology, and look to other factors for clarification. Is the food full of vitamins? Is it low in salt, sugar and fat? What else does the label say? All of these questions will come in handy when picking the right processed and unprocessed foods off grocery store shelves.  

1 Source: Food Preservation. 2003.