There's been a lot of talk recently about processed foods and how they should be avoided at all costs. I honestly wasn't paying a ton of attention to it, until I recently purchased Julie Montagu's Superfoods cookbook (amazing by the way, full review coming up soon) that promotes cutting processed foods from your diet, but doesn't define what they are. So it got me thinking...what really are processed foods?
Pre-washed lettuce is technically processed, but no one would advise you to avoid eating pre-washed lettuce for the sake of your health. So where do we draw the line between what's too processed and should be avoided, and what may be processed but is still okay to eat? I did the research so you don't have to.
Processed foods are defined as any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, often for flavor, preservation or convenience. That means there is a wide spectrum ranging from minimally processed, like cut vegetables, to heavily processed like frozen pizza, and then everything in between.
If you break it down and think about what the word "processed" really means, you will realize that you are technically "processing" foods when you cook yourself dinner. After all, my food processor is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets that's constantly in use.
I think it's safe to say that not every "processed" food needs to be avoided. Don't walk away feeling like now you need to wash your own spinach or slice your own mushrooms. You can also still feel good about canned beans and frozen fruit, which have been processed to lock in nutritional quality and freshness.
So what should be avoided?
The answer is foods with ingredients, especially sugar, sodium and fat, that have been added. Foods that would fall into this category include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt, crackers, deli meat and frozen meals.
Did you know that sugar is often added to bread to give it an "appealing" brown hue? Or that three quarters of America's sodium intake comes from processed foods, not peoples' salt shakers at home? Or how often trans fat is added to foods to preserve their shelf-life?
Gross. Gross. Gross.
Yeah. I think those are all things we can do without...at least most or part of the time. Avoiding these more heavily processed foods can be challenging since they often present the quickest, most convenient option and are foods we've eaten, without much thought, for the majority of our lives. But just being aware of these additives and the negative impacts they have on your health and energy may ignite some inspiration to reach for more whole foods, and less packaged foods, the next time you're at the grocery store.
At the end of the day, it's all about balance and doing your best. I'm definitely not committing to never using pasta sauce for my spaghetti at the end of a long day. Or swearing off tortilla chips. Um. No. But I am going to think twice about how often I include processed foods in my diet, and how they make me feel when I do.
So if you're a skim and scroll to the bottom type of reader (raising my hand), here are the takeaways:
What are processed foods?
Any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, often for flavor, preservation or convenience.
Some processed foods you can feel good about eating:
Bagged lettuce, pre-cut vegetables, roasted nuts, canned beans and vegetables, frozen fruit.
Some processed foods that should be avoided / eaten in moderation:
Frozen meals, pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt, milk, cake mixes, granola, deli meat, crackers.
Oh hey, would you look at that, another reason to eat plant-based ;)