Family and Consumer Sciences
What is processed food? A simple definition for processed food is any food that has been altered from its original state before eating. As you might imagine, most of the foods we eat are processed. Processing can be anything from washing and cutting, to cooking, freezing, drying, fermenting, canning or baking.
Not all processed foods are unhealthy. But some processed foods have added sugar, salt and fat. Processed foods range from minimally processed to heavily processed. Minimally processed foods include sliced fruits and vegetables, bagged leafy greens and roasted nuts.
These products are basically processed for convenience without any additives. Canned tomatoes, canned meat, canned beans, frozen fruits and vegetables, milk and cheese are also considered minimally processed. They may or may not have added sugar and salt. Baked goods and shelf stable boxed foods are considered processed foods. Breads and cereals fall into this category. More often than not, these items have added sugars, salt and fat. They also have to have various vitamins and nutrients added that were removed during processing.
You will see this on the label as ‘fortified.’ Heavily processed foods are candy, snack foods, frozen pizza and microwavable meals. Most heavily processed foods cannot be recognized as a food in its original form and have very little nutritive value. They are low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
But don’t fret. There are some positives to processed food. Many processed foods are a necessary part of our daily diet. Take milk for example. Milk needs to be processed (pasteurized) in order to remove harmful bacteria. Cheese and yogurt are processed (cultured) in order to achieve certain flavor profiles and remove bacteria. Apple and other fruit juices are processed and fortified with calcium and vitamin C. Breads and cereals have added fiber.
Unfortunately, we have no control over the amount of sugar, salt and fat in processed food. But we do have control over what we buy and what we eat. Know what foods are better than others and learn to read nutrition labels on packaged food. The amounts of sugar, salt (sodium) and fat are listed there. As of July 2018, grams of added sugars will be included in the Nutrition Facts Panel. This will help consumers see how much sugar is added to the product as opposed to sugars that are naturally present in the food. Learn to read the ingredient list too. Yogurt is a minimally processed food. But be careful. What you think may be a great source of protein and a tasty, nutritious snack, may just be a source of added sugars, artificial flavors and colors. Watch out for ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, dehydrated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose and other items ending in ‘ose’. These are hidden sources of sugar. Salt is disguised as baking soda, sodium benzoate, sodium nitrate and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Fats may be listed as butter, margarine, shortening, lard and oils. All oils are fat. Some oils are healthier than others, but all are a source of fat. It’s important to remember that the method of processing is not necessarily what makes a food unhealthy. It is the ingredients added during the processing that cause problems. Be wise about your food intake and knowledgeable about food labels. Make an effort to choose minimally processed foods and foods labeled as ‘no… added’, ‘low… ’, or ‘reduced… ’ to decrease the amounts of sugar, salt and fat you’re getting from processed foods. For more information about reading food labels contact the Woodford County FCS Extension Agent at 873-4601.