Even seemingly healthy foods can be highly processed and increase the risk of inflammation and illness. How can you identify them?
Processed foods are a pervasive part of our diet and can be found in everything from snack foods and frozen dinners to condiments and baking ingredients. While some processing can be beneficial to health, such as pasteurisation and fermentation, many processed foods are high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and salt, and can contribute to chronic inflammation and a host of health issues.
But how do you determine which foods are overly processed and which ones are not? After all, many processed foods are marketed as "healthy" or "natural," and it can be challenging to decipher food labels and ingredient lists.
Excluding highly processed foods from your diet can be a beneficial way to reduce chronic inflammation and lower the risk of certain diseases that are linked to inflammation. However, it can be difficult to determine what constitutes processed food, as some forms of processing can actually be beneficial for your health.
Done well, some processing can preserve the nutritional value of foods or make them more available—such as during the winter when we don’t have local fruits and vegetables. Processing can also make foods safer—just think of pasteurized milk, which kills harmful germs. And processes like fermentation can sometimes improve the healthfulness of foods, like yoghurt.
In this blog, we will explore the different types of processed foods and how to identify them, so you can make informed decisions about what to include in your diet. We will also discuss the potential health risks of consuming too many processed foods and provide tips for selecting healthier options:
What are processed foods?
Processed foods are those that have undergone some form of modification from their original form. This could involve simple processes such as freezing or removing inedible parts, which is considered minimal processing.
Processed foods at the next level have a few additional ingredients. Examples include crackers with three ingredients (wheat, oil, and salt), freshly baked bread, or canned vegetables packed in water and salt.
Foods with even more processing are known as "ultra-processed" foods. These foods are often unrecognizable from their original form and contain additives like preservatives, oil, sugar, salt, colouring, and flavouring. These are commonly referred to as junk food.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include hot dogs and deli meat, cheese puffs, doughnuts, frozen pizza, white bread, cookies, microwaveable dinners, and soda.
When experts caution against the negative effects of processed foods, they are typically referring to ultra-processed foods. These types of foods can be harmful for several reasons. Processing often removes nutrients from foods, such as refining whole grains. It can also create harmful molecules, like trans fat, or add large amounts of unhealthy ingredients like salt and sugar.
Consuming a high amount of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of chronic inflammation and various chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and cancer, as well as an increased risk of premature death.
Finding ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods are often easy to identify due to their long ingredient lists and can be found on store shelves or in the frozen, refrigerated, deli, or bakery sections. Examples include packaged, ready-to-eat meals or entrées; prepared side dishes; snacks; and sweets like cookies and cakes.
However, ultra-processed foods can sometimes be disguised as healthy options, such as fruit-flavored yogurts, refrigerated soups, refrigerated pastas (like chicken tortellini), granola bars, juices, breakfast cereals, frozen yogurt, low-fat salad dressings, condiments, butter substitutes, low-salt crackers, or nut butters.
How can you tell if something is ultra-processed?
To determine if a food is ultra-processed, you can simply check the ingredient list on its label. If it contains a long list of ingredients, including chemicals and unfamiliar words, it is likely ultra-processed. In this case, it is best to choose a food with a shorter list of ingredients.
Is it ok to have a cheat meal?
It can be challenging to avoid ultra-processed foods, especially when you're busy or want to treat yourself to a ready-to-eat muffin, deli sandwich, or homemade ragù with chicken sausage. Is it ever okay to indulge if you are generally healthy?
It is generally acceptable to indulge in ultra-processed foods occasionally, as long as it is not a frequent occurrence. However, it is important to consider the other ingredients in the food, such as the salt content.
For example, the ragù may be okay if the salt is below 200 milligrams per serving. It is also recommended to keep daily salt intake below 2,300 milligrams, unless advised otherwise by a doctor, limit saturated fat to 10% or less of daily calories, and limit added sugars to 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams per day for men.
To the extent possible, incorporate whole, unprocessed foods into a plant-based diet, including vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
It is important to note that just because a food is unprocessed does not necessarily mean it is healthy, as demonstrated by a diet consisting of red meat, milk, and potatoes, which is unprocessed but not necessarily optimal.
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