Usually when you hear the term “processed food” it may have a negative connotation within your mind. You might be surprised to discover that processed food, when chosen wisely, can be healthy.
Food processing is defined as any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. It can be as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as putting together frozen meals with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients. Nearly all our food is processed in some way.
Examples of processed food include
- Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables
- Milling wheat into flour and frying potato chips
- Packaged foods labeled “natural” or “organic,” such as cereals, fresh meat and poultry, and jarred baby foods
- Foods fortified with nutrients such as fiber, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids
- Foods prepared in quick-service and fine-dining restaurants, cafeterias and food courts, sports arenas, coffee shops and other locations.
Nutrition and processed food
As an oncology nutritionist, people often ask me, “do processed foods lack nutrition?”
Because processed foods include such a wide range of products, their nutritional values vary widely, too. For example, frozen vegetables can be more nutrient-rich than fresh because they are picked and frozen at their nutritional peak. In addition, processed foods that are fortified with vitamins, minerals or other nutrients can help people reach the recommended intake levels for those nutrients. An example is orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
A great example of the beneficial effects of food processing is with lycopene, which is a carotenoid in various red or orange fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and carrots. Thermal processing techniques, such as cooking and canning of fruits and vegetables, can increase lycopene’s bioavailabity by changing its molecular configuration. On the other hand some processed foods, such as fried foods, desserts, and candy, supply calories but few other nutrients.
Processing: Not so bad sometimes
Nearly all of our food has been processed in some way. Processing food offers many benefits: It can enhance preservation, reduce food safety risks, add nutrients, and create a greater variety in the food supply. However, the practices and ingredients used in some highly processed foods raise dietary concerns.
Processed foods can be incorporated into a healthy diet, with plenty of fresh food as well, but it is important to be aware of how processing might affect a food’s nutritional value.