There is an overwhelming amount of food options to choose from in our grocery stores. It can be a challenge figuring out which are healthy choices, and which are not.
Processed Food Facts
The word process, by definition, means a series of actions or steps taken to meet a particular end. Pre-washed/ prepackaged spinach and lettuce, baby carrots, roasted nuts and frozen chopped veggies are processed foods. But these are healthy foods you say, right? Right! These processed foods cannot be lumped with their more unhealthy counter parts.
The amount of processing a food goes through varies from minimally processed to heavily processed
- Produce that is chopped for ease of use, frozen fruit and veggies along with nuts and seeds.
- Foods that are canned at peak ripeness to lock in the best nutritional value and quality including fruits, veggies, beans and canned tuna.
- Foods with extra ingredients for taste and texture such as sweeteners, spices, oils, preservatives and added colors. These are found in items like spaghetti sauces, salad dressings and yogurt.
- Ready to eat foods are next up. This includes items like crackers, granola and deli meats.
- The most heavily processed foods are pre-made meals and frozen entrées.
A good way to figure out how much processing an item has gone through is to look at the nutrition label. The less ingredients, the better.
A nutrition label lists ingredients by weight
The first ingredient is the main ingredient and those after are in order of quantity found in the product. Things to look for on an ingredient list are hidden sugars, fats and sodium. Sugars are hidden in a large amount of our foods.
You can find the grams of sugar on a nutrition label listed under total carbohydrates.
What exactly is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Macronutrients are nutrients that provide calories or energy.
There are three macronutrients, they are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Most carbohydrates are naturally occurring in plant-based foods, such as grains. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or added sugar.
There are three main types of carbohydrates. They include:
- Sugar. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrates. Sugar occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Sugars include fruit sugar (fructose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose).
- Starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it is made of many sugar units bonded together. Starch occurs naturally in vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
- Fiber. Fiber also is a complex carbohydrate. Fiber occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
If you would like further information about the differences in simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates check out this short article by registered dietitian, Kari Hartel.
To differentiate between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, look at the ingredient label. If sugar is listed among the first two or three ingredients, it is an added sugar. Compare different brands to make the best choice for your family.
When in doubt and looking for one of the easiest ways to avoid highly processed foods, shop the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where many of the lesser processed foods are found. While there are many healthy foods in the isles of the grocery store, you will find more processed foods mixed in the isles than along the perimeter of the store. Just a bit of food for thought!
I’d love to know if this post helped you better understand processed foods!