Before refrigerators, there was salting, spicing, smoking, pickling, and drying. Foods like milk and butter, were preserved and stored in cellars, wells, and cold streams. Meats were dried or smoked. Fruits and vegetables were pickled or fermented. Fast forward a few centuries to World War II: convenience foods and a burgeoning way of preserving (what we now know as processedÅ foods) gained popularity, as the military discovered inventive ways of feeding fighting soldiers.
Today, if you ask most consumers to define processed foods, chances are, the first thing that comes to mind is something bagged, boxed, or canned, that’s laden with more bad nutrients than good. The notion of processed foods being nutritious or healthy probably seems foreign to most. With all of the conflicting messages and finger wagging, there’s no wonder why most consumers picture flashing red lights when they hear the words, “processed foods”.
Unfortunately, in some cases, vilifying processed foods does more bad than good. The emphasis on labeling processed foods as nutritionally inferior and avoiding them like the plague is an oversimplified and flawed narrative that can damage our relationship with food. All of this just sends us into a frenzy of unnecessary food anxiety, which pulls us away from the bigger picture—creating a healthy and sustainable relationship with food. Instead of vilifying all processed foods (which isn’t always sensible or practical), we’d be much better off learning how to spot a decent processed food.
Below, I’ll reveal the truth about processed foods, why they aren’t as bad as you think, and how to have a healthy relationship with them.
What are processed foods?
Processed foods are broadly defined as any food that has undergone a process to alter its flavor, composition, or shelf life. Cutting is a process. Cooking is a process. Freezing, canning, baking, and drying are processes as well. In short, processed foods are spread across a continuum—from virgin coconut oil and lentils to potato chips and soda.
Not all processed foods are bad
It’s true that there are a lot of unhealthy processed foods lining the shelves of the grocery store. But, processed foods aren’t always Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese and Diet Coke. There are some star players lining the shelves too that may be doing more good than harm.
Take, for example, a pretty standard high fiber cereal. Not only is it convenient and affordable, but a single serving contains 100% of the Daily Value of folic acid. Consider it part of an almost 20-year-old plan to decrease birth defects caused by too little folate.
What about a carton of orange juice? Well, this staple breakfast beverage is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which helps protect many Americans from osteoporosis, a disease that affects almost 10 million people nationwide.
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Almost all foods are processed
The coffee you brewed this morning? Processed. The bagged spinach salad and the handful of roasted nuts you munched on for lunch? Yes, you guessed it. They’re processed too. Historically, mainstream media, advocacy groups, and health professionals, have all labeled processed foods as unsafe or nutritionally deficient.
The truth, however, is that some foods (like grains) need to be processed in order for us to eat it. In fact, a review article published in the Advances in Nutrition revealed that without processed foods, over 90% of Americans would fail to meet the recommended intakes of certain vitamins and minerals.
Freezing produce (another food processing technique) shortly after harvesting ensures that peak nutritional value is maintained for an extended amount of time. It also allows for variety during off-season. Still, other food processing techniques, like pasteurization, ensures food safety and an extended shelf life.
Processed foods help us meet public health nutrition needs
For decades, the ‘lone ranger’ approach to food innovation led scientists down a long path of challenges. At some point on the path, scientists surprised (and upset!) nutritionists when they created low-saturated fat frozen meals that were high in total fat, sodium, and added sugars.
Now, decades later, scientists have learned from past mistakes and are coming together to tackle the new nutrition-food interface. They are continuously working to redefine nutritious food, examine the role of processed foods in the American diet, and solve the riddle of providing American’s with the food they need to meet dietary recommendations.
Consider processed foods one of the many food-based solutions to public health nutrition problems, including the pressing problem of meeting our dietary recommendations.
Processed foods are here to stay
Negative opinions on processed foods vary from blaming it for obesity to labeling bioengineered ingredients as unnatural. Interestingly enough, a four-year study conducted by the International Food Information Council found that despite consumers’ guilty feelings about purchasing processed food, they still continue to purchase them out of convenience, value, and consistency.
The reality of modern life is that we need processed foods. They’re great for when we don’t have time, energy, or even access to fresh, whole foods. They have also evolved drastically over the years thanks to consumers demanding quality packaged foods made with ingredients we can pronounce. Long are the days were food dye and fillers reign supreme.
The bottom line
Remember that all processed foods aren’t bad, but don’t take this as a green light to start eating everything. Instead, stick to a balanced approach. Aim to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy servings of fat and protein. Opt for more minimally processed foods like bagged vegetables over highly processed foods like TV dinners. And when it comes to grab-and-go foods like sandwiches, salads, and fast-food entrees, look for those that contain whole grains and a full serving of vegetables or fruit.
So, the message here seems to be: Next time you hear the term “processed foods”, don’t scrunch your nose in disgust or berate yourself for considering it when it’s a necessity. Don’t think of food as “good” vs “bad”. Instead, remember that your health is not a helpless battle between morality and sin. It’s a series of endless nuanced decisions that are affected day-to-day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julianka Bell is a Registered Dietitian, nutrition consultant, and founder of Nutrition Her, a platform focused on having an honest conversation about women and food. She works with food and wellness brands to help tell their story, and provides personalized nutrition counseling in New York City. She holds a Master of Science in Nutrition from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. You can find Julianka on Instagram @nutrition.her.