The term “processed foods” is tossed around a lot and can be a little hard to be certain of just what that means, or why these foods can be a health problem. In the winter, without our fresh local produce stands, the choices can seem more limited. However, there really are plenty of options. Most of our foods are at least minimally processed, unless you’re the rabbit that eats my lettuce down to the nub or the deer that yank the sweet potatoes from the ground. Our plant foods have to be picked and usually are washed and placed in some kind of container – “minimally processed.” These foods have their nutrients intact.
Grains such as brown rice (in picture) and rolled oats are also minimally processed as they’re removed from the plant shaft, and generally sold in some kind of container; when cooked they still retain their nutritional value. However, when you take whole grain rice and mill it to remove the bran layer and the germ to get white rice, you’re more intensely processing away a number nutrients as well as flavor. 1 Cup of brown rice contains 4.4 g of fiber, while a cup of white rice contains only 0.8 g. Fiber helps boost satiety, aiding in healthy weight management, cholesterol and glucose control, AND your microbiome thrives on it. Brown rice is a good source of vitamins B and E, manganese, selenium and magnesium. With processing you also lose these important nutrients.
If you take the rice and process it further into packaged Rice-A- Roni with Chicken Flavor, you now have a rice dish that has 9 grams of fat (with 2g saturated) and 1060 mg sodium, MSG, Ferric Orthopohosphate, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate! To find the actual “Ingredients” contained in a product you have to look at the box of fine print below the “Nutrition Facts” (see the Quaker Oats illustration)
Here’s what happens when we process good old Quaker Oatmeal into the instant oatmeal packets (see illustrations); note that the list of “ingredients” grows from one ingredient to a whole paragraph of unrecognizable ingredients. The only ingredient in the round box of Quaker Oats is “Rolled Oats”.
Instead of using the instant package of additives, artificial flavoring and preservatives, here’s an easy to make breakfast: place ½ apple chopped into a bowl, shake on cinnamon, add ½ cup oatmeal and 1 cup water, stir, microwave for 1 ½ - 2 minutes to your preference of consistency.
Freezing and canning are also forms of processing, and helpful for storage and availability. These are done when the food is at peak ripeness, flavor and nutrient value, and can be done “minimally” without losing much nutritional value. Cooking and canning can actually make some nutrients more available (such as lycopene from tomatoes) and decreases others. So we actually benefit by including both raw and cooked fruits in our food choices. So we could consider these foods “minimally processed” EXCEPT when sugar, salt, artificial flavor and preservatives are added. Compare Lipton’s Ragu spaghetti sauce with 756 mg of sodium, to Classico Roasted Garlic which has just 220mg per serving. A Prego brand tomato sauce has 10 g of sugar added. Many sauces and soups have added fats. All you can do is read the labels and compare. When purchasing canned (or jarred) fruits and veggies look for less than 250 mg sodium per portion and no added sugar, preservatives, flavoring, coloring.
Processed meats are best avoided for several reasons. Meats are often processed by salting, curing, fermenting smoking turning into sausage, baloney, luncheon meats, hotdogs, bacon etc. In 2015 the World Health Organization reported that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer). Processed meats also contain large amounts of saturated fats and salts, as well as preservatives and coloring agents. It’s not unusual for these to be a part of children’s meals (think hot dogs); one can see how over the years this could contribute to not only cancer, but also obesity and hypertension; something to ponder as we shop, cook meals and pack lunches for our families. Schools are working to improve the quality of their meals - cooking from scratch, leaving out processed meats, using whole grains, including more fruits and vegetables.
In summary :
1. Choose mostly foods that don’t need an “ingredient” label – fruits and veggies. Or choose “minimally processed” packaged food.
2. For packaged items look past the claims on the front of the package, and look at the actual ingredient list.
3. When buying packaged items, such as frozen veggies or brown rice – there should be just one ingredient on the list ie. the actual food without additives.
4, Canned items such as beans and stewed tomatoes are actually available that have no sodium, or very little!
5. If you’re buying pre-made items such as bread, cereal, crackers, pastas, soups – look for less than 2 grams of fat, less than 200 mg sodium, and less than 7 g sugar per serving.
6. Choose the above items as whole grains – don’t be fooled by the front of a package that says “made with whole grains”, look for 100%. The 1st ingredients on the list on the back should be whole grains.
7. If sugar (or corn syrup or fructose or maltose etc) is among the first 3 ingredients, chances are it’s too much added sugar.
8. For condiments – such as salad dressing, pay attention to the actual amount of added salt, fat, sugar. “Low fat” on the front might just mean “lower fat than our usual”, and often, more sugar is added.
9. Look very, very carefully at ingredients and amounts of fat, sodium, salt in premade meals. Even those labeled as healthy choices, might not be that healthy.
9. Pay attention to portion or serving size (it’s usually smaller than you might think); the sodium, fat, sugar content are based on portion size, not the whole container. For example, can of soup often has 2 ½ servings.
Label reading can be tedious, but if you keep your sense of humor with you, you’ll see that some of the marketing tricks, ingredient lists and amounts are almost laughable. Eventually you’ll find your favorite, healthy products and you can bypass all the rest.
Dr. Elizabeth George