When most people think of “processed foods,” they think of potato chips, candy or ice cream. But did you know that some processed foods are actually good for your health? Some can also save you money at the grocery store and preparation time in your kitchen, but make sure you know how to spot the healthy ones.
A food is considered a “whole food” if it most closely resembles what it looked like growing on a tree or in the ground (think apples). A “processed” food is one that has been altered from its natural state (think applesauce). But food can be processed in many different ways, and not all of them harm the nutritional content of the food. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are five categories of processing that include:
- Minimally processed foods: Bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts that are prepped ahead for your convenience
- Foods processed at their peak: Canned beans, tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna that are processed to lock in nutritional quality and freshness
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture: Sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives that are added to pasta sauce, salad dressing, and yogurt
- Ready-to-eat foods: More heavily processed crackers, granola, and deli meat
- Heavily processed foods: Frozen or pre-made meals like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners
Next time you go food shopping, remember not to overlook foods that are minimally processed to preserve freshness and can save you preparation time in the kitchen. Shop the frozen food aisles for veggies and fruits; stock up on canned beans and tuna fish; and pick up some pre-washed, bagged spinach to make a quick and easy dinner salad for your family. Some of these ingredients may even be cheaper than their unprocessed versions.
However, make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list of more heavily processed foods such as frozen dinners, granola bars, and breads to watch out for added sugar, salt, or artificial ingredients used to enhance the food’s flavor or texture. Stay away from ingredient names that are unfamiliar or hard to pronounce. And head over to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website for more information!