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We here at That Sugar dig real foods (discussed in a recent post). As a part of this conversation, we like to encourage consumption of whole, unprocessed foods, replacing refined, heavily processed foods.

But what exactly are ‘processed foods’ and how much processing is too much?

Processing – the lowdown

The quality of food is often determined by how much work is needed for it to get to your plate. A processed food is usually anything with more than one ingredient, and often, the more work required, the less nutritional value remains. This leaves the body devoid of vitamin, minerals and other helpful constituents it needs to live happily and healthily.

However, some foods require some degree of processing in order to get to a state where we can consume them. In fact, we have been processing and preparing grains, meats, vegetables and fruits for thousands, if not millions, of years. Now with technological development, the processing of foods historically done at home is taken care of by big manufacturing companies. (2)

Processing methods include grinding, steaming, chopping, extensive heating, canning, and preserving in sugar or salt. Here is a rundown of foods you may wish to include in their minimally processed forms, compared to those that offer little value once processed.

Good Not so good
Fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds

 

Fresh and raw

Fermented

Frozen

Bagged greens, chopped vegetables

Canned in water or own juice, especially if fresh isn’t available

Jarred and unrefrigerated

Dried (in small amounts)

Canned in syrup or salt

Microwaveable / ready-to-eat meals

Powdered

Juices

Potato crisps

Nuts and seeds salted and roasted in oil

 

Meat, fish and poultry Fresh

Lean

Eggs

ethically sourced

Deli meats

Sausage

Tinned meats

Chicken nuggets/fingers

Fish fingers

Fats and oils Olive oil

Coconut oil

Butter

Avocado oil

Flaxseed oil (not for cooking)

Macadamia oil

Margarine

Trans-fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated)

Cottonseed oil

Industrially produced vegetable oils such as canola and corn.

Grains and legumes These will generally have a degree of processing, like de-shelling, steaming or drying. Your best option is to select those grains and legumes that resemble their original state the most, such as brown or basmati rice, quinoa, buckwheat, freekah, barley, oats, bulgur, spelt, and chickpeas, lentils, black beans, butter beans, kidney beans and mung beans.

 

The dark side of processed food

The major issues with processed food are the depletion of nutrients, and the addition of sugar, salt and bad fats. Excessive intakes of these can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, and increased levels of the types of LDL cholesterol associated with atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Sugar, as we well know, is often a product of a long line of processing, stripped of any nutritional value it once had, serving only kilojoules. It should be consumed with a nutrient like fibre, like in a piece of fruit, to slow its release of glucose into the blood stream, and minimise any sharp rises and crashes in blood glucose, and your energy.

Salt, and sodium, is well documented to increase blood pressure. Adding salt to your meal doesn’t seem to e the issue, but the addition to many processed foods that you will want to avoid.

Trans-fats are a highly refined derivative of oils often used in fast foods outlets, and ready-to-eat foods such as crackers and frozen pie pastry, due to its low cost. Look out on the ingredient list of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, to avoid inflammation, poor blood flow, increase in bad cholesterol, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. (1)

Not all processing is bad

In an ideal world, we would all be growing our own food. But in reality, some of us do not like dirt, we are likely time poor, and quite frankly, there mightn’t be enough viable land mass to each have a decent space to crop. This is where food processing and supply is important – to ensure we all have a safe and consistent supply of food.

All in all, we are after food that it nutrient dense rather than energy dense. If the food resembles its natural state, you are on to a good thing.

References:

  1. Kummerow, FA 2009, The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them, Atherosclerosis, vol. 205, pp. 458-465
  2. Wahlqvist & Jones 2011, The food supply and system, in Food and Nutrition: Food and Health Systems in Australia and New Zealand, 3rd, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest NSW