Processed vs. Unprocessed Foods
written by Kirstin Kade from Taste & See
The world of food can be a bit confusing, especially when you walk into the shops and are faced with aisle after aisle of ingredients and food products. Processed foods have a pretty bad reputation, but is it fair to place them all in the same category? Are some of our favorite health products actually processed? And are any processed foods actually good for us?
Before we get started, let’s highlight a few loose definitions that can help us understand food a bit better:
is generally considered to be any raw ingredients that have been transformed, by physical or chemical means, into marketable food products.
Minimally processed food
includes ingredients that are processed, as mentioned above, but very minimally. For example, dried legumes require cooking before they can be eaten, and milk needs to be pasteurised before it is bottled.
includes food ingredients that are not processed or refined in any way before they are eaten.
Why does food processing exist?
Food processing aims to ensure both food quality and food safety. Common methods of food processing include mincing, emulsification, cooking, pickling, pasteurization, canning, freezing, drying, and fermentation. Food processing is important for:
· Removing microbial toxins
· Destroying microorganisms, which can cause foods to perish and can cause foodborne illnesses
· Ease of marketing and distribution
· Longer shelf-life of foods
· Improving the taste and texture of foods
· Convenience for the consumer
What are the negative aspects of food processing?
A major disadvantage of highly processed foods is the loss of nutritional quality during processing. Exposure to oxygen, heat, light, and high or low pH during processing can result in certain vitamins in foods being destroyed. When foods are cut, water-soluble vitamins and minerals can leach out and be lost during processing. Another negative aspect of food processing is the use of food additives to extend the shelf-life of food products, which may not all be the best for our health. Ready-to-eat processed foods with long shelf lives often contain higher amounts of unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt, which we also know aren’t great for our health when eaten in large quantities.
Some interesting benefits of food processing
Some foods are processed at their peak to preserve their nutritional quality and freshness. For example, the nutritional quality of individually quick-frozen fruits and vegetables are equal to or better than that of fresh fruits and vegetables that have been sitting on a supermarket shelf for a few days. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often picked before they are ripe, allowing them to fully ripen during transportation to the supermarket. In contrast, fruits and vegetables that are frozen are picked at their ripest, most nutritious stage.
Other examples include canned tomatoes that contain significantly more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation in the body. Plain yoghurt retains the protein and calcium found in milk, and also includes added bacteria that help maintain good gut health. Another positive aspect of food processing is the ability to fortify products with vitamins and minerals that may not have been present in significant amounts, for example almond or soy milk that is fortified with calcium. Fortification can address some of the major deficiencies found within a population.
The cold, hard truth about those health foods you love…
Believe it or not, but many of the food products loved by wellness warriors throughout the world are actually processed food products. That kombucha you bought from the shops, it’s processed. That pea protein you add to your morning smoothie, it’s highly processed. The packaged almond milk you use in your turmeric latte, it’s a processed product too.
Now the point of these examples isn’t to demonise processed ‘health’ foods, my point is to just highlight that even our favorite healthy products may undergo some form of processing to make them usable by us, the consumer. There is nothing wrong with eating minimally processed foods, and there is nothing wrong with eating even the unhealthiest of processed foods once in awhile. The best thing you can do for your body, however, is to choose to prioritise minimally processed, whole foods over more processed alternatives most of the time.
So, what should I eat?
It can be really difficult to make everything from scratch at home, so instead of avoiding all processed foods, rather learn to read and understand food labels so that you are able to distinguish between the better-for-you, lightly processed food products and more heavily processed products. As a general rule, enjoy as many whole, unprocessed foods as you can and prepare meals from raw ingredients. However, when life gets busy don’t be scared to buy some of the healthier processed foods that are available on the market for us to enjoy.
When you do choose to buy more processed products from the supermarket shelves, try and pick products that don’t contain lots of additives or hundreds of different ingredients, and choose to buy products that are made with simple ingredients that will nourish your body. Don’t fall for the many nutrition claims out there on the shelves (‘sugar-free’, ‘low-carb’), but rather look to nourish your body as best you can with real food. When in doubt, buy some fruit and a small packet of nuts to snack on, but don’t be scared to enjoy a yummy snack bar once in a while if that’s what your body is craving
Kirstin is a qualified Food Scientist and is currently studying a MSc Human Nutrition at the University of Surrey in the U.K. Her blog, Taste & See, is a space where she shares nutrition-related knowledge and wholesome recipes that aim to make good health through food accessible to others.
1 — EatRight.org (http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/avoiding-processed-foods)
2 — The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/not-all-processed-foods-are-bad-for-you-how-theyre-made-matters/2017/02/08/8b205378-ea5b-11e6-bf6f-301b6b443624_story.html?utm_term=.1d73dbefb355)
3 — Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN (https://www.today.com/health/are-all-processed-foods-really-bad-you-t28986)