You may be surprised to learn that not all processed foods are bad for you.
Frozen vegetables, for example, are processed, while retaining all, if not more, of the original nutrients through advanced processing techniques. Milk and yogurt are also processed, but remain close to their natural form.
It is not the general processing of foods that makes them ready to eat that is the nutritional problem, but rather the ultra-processed foods that we need to minimize in the diet.
Ultra-processed foods are heavily engineered, contain many ingredients, and are usually very different from the original food from which they came.
Cheeses, for example, are very, very different from cheese, because French fries are very different from a potato. In these examples, food manufacturers add additional flavors, sugars, fats, and often chemicals to create an entirely new food, foods that are rarely healthy.
And specifically, it’s a high-intake, ultra-processed food that’s been linked to weight gain and lifestyle-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes.
There is also a range of ultra-processed foods that pass themselves off as relatively ‘healthy’ options, but a closer look at how they are made and the ingredients they are made from will reveal that they are not not always as healthy as they are perceived to be. .
Plant-based foods are naturally given a health halo with the perception that a “milk” from nuts, legumes, or oats must be healthier than animal foods.
But the reality is that plant-based milk as a whole is heavily processed to create a milk-like product from foods that don’t actually produce milk.
A quick scan of the ingredient list of your favorite nut or grain milk will reveal whether the list of additives, including sugars and oils, turn the nut or grain “water” into a milk-like food. Then, extras like protein and vitamins are added back into the mix. Less fat and less calories yes, but less processed no.
A relatively new addition to the bread aisle, wraps look and feel lighter than regular bread and as such are often interpreted as healthier alternatives to sliced bread, but it’s not the case.
It takes a lot of physical processing to convert a grain into a flat, white husk, concentrating the natural carbohydrates and stripping the grain of some of its natural nutrient content. Indeed, whole-grain and whole-wheat varieties are better than white wraps, but they are certainly not nutritionally better than a dense grain bread.
Located in the health food section of supermarkets, you could be forgiven for assuming your favorite post-gym snack is a healthy choice.
But a quick scan of the ingredient list will likely reveal a long list of ingredients, many of which may not even be recognized.
Concentrated protein isn’t too appetizing, which means it needs a range of additives to make it not only taste good, but convert into an edible bar, bite or ball. A protein bar can be a source of protein, it is not an unprocessed natural food.
READ MORE: Five signs your diet is actually bad for you
Meat that is not meat
If you prefer to avoid animal foods, meat alternatives made from wheat gluten, vegetables, soy, and protein powders can be a nutritious food option.
But it can also be ultra-processed foods designed to look, taste and feel like meat, chicken, fish or other animal protein, minus natural nutrients such as protein, zinc and iron found in proteins of animal origin.
They can also be loaded with added oils, sugars, salts, colorings and flavor enhancers, which doesn’t mean they’re always technically “healthier” than the meat itself.
Bright colors and vegetable bases may scream healthy, but there’s not much healthy in most commercial dips.
Sure, if you’re making hummus at home or mash your own avocado in guac, your dip is minimally processed, but common supermarket jars are filled with vegetable oils, flavorings, stabilizers and colorings to give a savory mix that can be delicious and taste a bit like bell pepper, eggplant or beetroot, but in an ultra-processed form. Pair it with ultra-processed white rice crackers and you have the ultimate mix of ultra-processed snacks.
Author Susie Burrel is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of shape meco-host of The nutritional couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in print and television commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.
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