Processed foods: Can they be healthy?
Mention ‘processed foods’ and you probably think of fat or sugar-laden snacks. But what about grainy bread or baked beans? Healthy Food Guide lifts the lid on food processing.
Cooking from scratch is generally the healthiest way to eat because it allows you to control the ingredients you use. Takeaway burgers, low-quality carbs and sugary sweets have, understandably, come under attack from those promoting a healthy eating message.
But claims by some clean eaters and raw food crusaders, who deny the nutritional value of any processed foods, can be viewed with caution. After all, our daily bread and milk are processed, but don’t fall into the same category as frozen pizza. So, what’s the difference?
Food processing for beginners
In its simplest form, the term ‘processed’ can be used for all food that has been changed in some way. If we were to be pedantic, even food we cook from scratch could be described as processed. Boiling, roasting, frying and baking are all forms of food processing, as are preparations such as chopping, grating, peeling and mashing.
Canning, freezing, drying and pasteurising also count as food processing techniques. The truth is, most food you buy in the supermarket has been processed in some way. Even whole foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, have likely been washed, trimmed, shelled, husked, ground or wrapped before they make their way into your trolley. These processes don’t mean a food is unhealthy.
All part of the process
Not all processed foods are bad choices. Some foods need processing to make them safe or suitable for use, for example, milk, which is pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Freezing fruit and veges preserves most vitamins, while canned produce allows for year-round choice, easy storage and cooking, less waste and lower costs. ‘Processed’ is not the dirty word it’s made out to be, but we also can’t ignore the overwhelming research promoting a diet based primarily on whole foods.
What about sugar, fat and salt?
This is where things start to get a bit tricky. When nutritionists refer to processed foods, typically referring to products that have been heavily modified and bear little or no resemblance to their original state. They tend to have a long ingredients list and are high in added salt, sugar and saturated fat. They include food such as biscuits, chips, sweets, pastries, soft drink and ice cream. These foods are often ready to eat, shelf-stable and loaded with kilojoules. They’re also usually super-sized and heavily marketed, which can make them easy to overeat. Yet, despite what we already know about the health risks of eating too much over-processed food, consumption is on the increase.
Your Food processing report card
Whole, unprocessed foods: whole fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds
Minimally processed foods, close to their natural state: oats, nut butters, extra virgin olive oil, canned legumes, milk and yoghurt
Semi-processed foods: white pasta, breakfast cereals, canned tuna, cheese and white bread
Ultra-processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar: chocolate bars, potato chips and biscuits
Ultra-processed foods with a lengthy list of artificial additives and ingredients you don’t recognise: soft drinks, confectionary, bacon and meat pies.
Processed food to add to your trolley
Because of its long shelf life, cereal is a pantry staple for most people in New Zealand. How healthy it is for you depends on the type you choose. High-sugar varieties are not recommended, but many favourite brands have been reducing sugar and salt levels over the years. Lower sugar and salt varieties, some fortified with vitamins and minerals, can be an easy, convenient, high-fibre breakfast or snack.
With the rise of low-carb diets, bread has copped a bad rap, but there’s a big difference between fluffy white bread and dense, grainy loaves. White bread is made from refined grains, which means the outer bran and germ layers of the grain have been stripped away, leaving a loaf that has significantly less fibre than wholegrain bread.
Wholemeal contains all the components of the wheat grain but is milled to a finer texture. Heavy wholegrain loaves, such as soy-linseed or mixed grain, are your most nutritious choice. They’re rich in fibre and heart-healthy fats, while the large pieces of grain and seed slow digestion and make the bread lower GI.
Milk and yoghurt
Most dairy products undergo a process called pasteurisation, where the milk is briefly heated to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Raw milk is especially risky for pregnant women, young children and the elderly. Another process, homogenisation, is used to give milk its smooth and creamy texture. yoghurt is made by introducing live bacteria to milk and sometimes fruit or flavourings are also added.
While taking fat out of milk is processing, we recommend reduced-fat versions of milk and dairy products, as a high proportion of dairy fat is saturated fat and too much of that is not good for your heart. The health benefits of dairy products far outweigh the minimal processing involved.
Milk is your premium source of healthy, bone-strengthening calcium, while yoghurt also contains gut-friendly probiotics.
Sealing and high-pressure cooking of food in cans locks in nutrients, making many of them just as good a choice as fresh – and they all count towards your daily serves of veges. Just make sure to buy varieties that don’t come with added salt. Cans have a long shelf life and save on energy, as they don’t need to be refrigerated before opening.
Cheese is made from four basic ingredients: milk, salt, starter culture and an enzyme. Cheese provides protein and calcium but can be high in saturated fat when made from whole milk, so check labels and be aware of portion sizes. Cottage cheese is very low in saturated fat and, while it has little calcium, it is a good source of protein.
Frozen fruit and vegetables
Also counting towards your five-plus a day, frozen fruit and veges contain loads of nutrients, sometimes more than the fresh produce you’ve kept in the fridge or fruit bowl for a week.
As they’re snap frozen straight after being harvested, they don’t have time to lose valuable nutrients such as vitamin C or folate. Frozen fruit and veges also tend to be more affordable, save time, result in less waste and can be super-convenient when you’ve run out of fresh. And they’re usually available year round.
These are often criticised for being high in fat and salt and low in fibre, but there are some healthier options available and some just need the addition of your frozen veges to make a complete meal. In fact, it’s better to have one of the healthier convenience meals when you’re tired or busy than to skip a meal or grab an unhealthy takeaway. See ‘How to choose ready meals’.
Microwavable rice and quinoa
These trusty pantry saviours usually have a shelf life of about a year. They are a convenient source of starchy carbs, with plenty of wholegrain varieties now available. As a rule, flavoured varieties tend to contain more additives and can also have varying amounts of salt, often quite a lot, so check the labels.
Canned fish really helps you get two to three servings of fish a week. It’s particularly good for boosting intake of oily fish such as sardines, salmon and tuna – all of which are rich in heart-friendly omega-3 fats. Most plain varieties have few other ingredients except oil. Some have added salt so, again, it pays to check the label.
How to choose healthier processed food
Read the label
Along ingredients list full of words you can’t pronounce is a sign a food is overly processed. Avoid products with salt or sugar near the top of the list, as ingredients are listed in quantity percentage order.
Shop the perimeter
The centre aisles of supermarkets is where you’ll find most of the highly processed foods, such as soft drinks, lollies and biscuits.
Raid the freezer
Supermarket freezers have far more than frozen pizza and tubs of icecream. Look for snap-frozen fruit and veges that are often more affordable than fresh.
While it’s convenient to grab a chocolate bar or bag of salty crackers, it’s as simple to snack on a handful of nuts, a tub of yoghurt or a refreshing piece of fruit.
Watch the claims
Front-of-pack claims tell only part of the story. For the rest, read the nutrition information panel and the ingredients list.