Monday, March 14, 2016

Processed Foods Aren’t All Bad!

Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet no-no. It's blamed for our nation's obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple are also processed foods.

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned beans, tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include pasta sauce in the jar, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
While some processed foods should be consumed with caution, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here are some little-known nutrition facts about processed food from The Fulton County Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH) Program and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to help you decide when to say yes and when to say no.

What Is Processed Food?
Figuring out what processed really means is the first step to making smart choices. Nutrition experts consider white bread to be refined, since most of the healthy fiber has been removed during the processing. But as food is prepared for home cooking, we often process it as well.  That’s what food processors do, after all!

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed. Here’s a guide:

The Positives of Processed
Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereal may have added fiber. Canned fruit that is packed in water or its own juice is a good option when fresh fruit is not available.

Some minimally processed food, such as pre-cut vegetables, are quality convenience foods for busy people. So although bagged vegetables and salads often are more expensive, if the choice is between paying less and chopping it yourself — when you know you're not going to do that, and paying a little more for the bagged vegetable you know you're going to eat, the latter is a better choice.

Be a Food Detective
To become a smarter eater and shopper, dietitians advise, become a food detective.  Read the ingredients list and review the nutrition facts panel. Food is complex.  Get to know it. Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but consumers should be on the lookout for hidden sugar, sodium and fat.
The food supply has tons of added sugars. Just because a product says “organic” or “natural,” doesn’t mean it's better and healthier. Beware if a product has added high-fructose corn syrup or natural cane sugar, even if it has no sugar.

Sugar isn't just hidden in processed sweets. It's added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there's often a surprising amount added to pasta sauces in jars and to cereal. The number of carbohydrates on the nutrition label also includes naturally occurring sugars, which may be present in a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. That’s why it’s wise to review a product's ingredients list and check the ingredients list for various types of added sugars, such as sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate.

Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added sodium, which enhances taste and texture and acts as a preservative. Our bodies need some sodium, but we often consume much more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams a day.

Surprisingly, a heavy hand with table salt may not be to blame for our overconsumption of sodium. Only 20% to 25% of it comes from salting our food. Three quarters of it comes from processed foods, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
However, canned vegetables, soups and beans can be packed with nutrients, so don't cross them off the shopping list entirely. Instead, buy reduced or low sodium varieties and then sprinkle a little bit of salt on top as needed, nutritionists suggest. Another tip: Always rinse canned beans and vegetables. This simple step reduces sodium content by about 40%.

Added fat extends the shelf life of food and gives it body. Trans fats — which raise bad cholesterol levels while lowering the good ones— are on the decline in processed foods. But you should still read food labels. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a product can still claim it has zero trans fats if each serving has less than half-a-gram of the fat.

If a product has a really small serving size and you're eating three or four servings, trans fats add up. So, even if a product says it has zero trans fat, check the ingredients list. If it contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, then it's going to have to have some amount of trans fat in it.

Keeping these tips in mind will help you shop smart and eat smart during National Nutrition Month and all year long. 

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