What are processed foods? Is it okay to eat them? You may be surprised. What you should know about processed foods.
“Processed foods” has become somewhat of a health buzzword, indicating the types of foods that we shouldn’t be eating or feeding to our families. It suggests that these foods are less-than, unhealthy, or downright harmful to our health.
But did you know that “processed” doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy? In fact, we’d argue that the majority of things we eat on a regular basis have been altered to some degree.
Let us explain.
The truth is that they probably aren’t at all what you’ve been led to believe.
While we’ve all been under the impression that they are just Twinkies and Oreos, that’s not the full story.
So, What Are They?
Anything that alters a whole food is considered processing. Yup, that includes cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, cooking, freezing, drying, etc. Just because a food has been processed tells us nothing about its nutritional profile.
In fact, some foods need to be processed to make them safe to eat. For example, juices and milk that have been pasteurized to kill potentially harmful microorganisms.
This also means that even those pre-chopped melon cubes you bought in the produce section are technically a processed food.
Processing can be looked at as a scale.
The NOVA scoring system ranks foods by the amount of processing. Group 1 is on the minimal end— think dried fruits, unsweetened yogurt, lentils, and herbs would all fall into this category.
An example of varying levels of processing would be edamame (soy) beans, tofu, soy milk, soy-based ice cream, and protein bars made with soy protein isolate.
Why Processing Matters
Research has linked the high consumption of ultra-processed food in childhood to cardiometabolic risks— and, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), highly processed foods account for 2/3 of the calories consumed by kids in 2018.
In other words, ultra-processed foods are generally higher in refined grains and sugars and lower in antioxidants, fiber, and unsaturated fats than other less-processed foods.
The average child gets a substantial number of calories from these foods, which is not surprising looking around at the food landscape surrounding us.
Context Is Key
Various types of processed items may be necessary to meet overall nutrition goals— especially considering selective eating and food access.
That being said, our families consume processed foods often, and we try to prioritize ones that fall on the lower end of the processing scale as much as possible.
The PBJ Bottom Line
It’s important to consider the overall diet— knowing that most kids consume very high amounts of ultra-processed foods, we can focus on increasing less-processed foods for balance and promote overall health.
This starts with what we prepare and offer at home and what we pack for school, daycare, outings, etc. We’re all just doing our best!
So, what are processed foods? Not all bad, actually. In fact, some of the healthiest foods have been altered to some degree. Don’t fall into the trap of mislabeling them all as unhealthy as you feed your family.
Chime In: Were you surprised to learn this about processed foods? Which ones does your family eat?
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