Processed foods are often considered to be unhealthy, but not all packaged foods are created equal- some may even be good for you.
While making meals from scratch using the freshest, most nutritious ingredients is preferrable, in reality most of us lead busy lives far removed from direct food sources, so rely on ingredients that are easily storable in the pantry or fridge.
Many of these convenient, processed foods have gained a bad reputation due to being associated with high amounts of fat, sugar, sodium and other additives. But if you get a craving for the occasional can of baked beans for breakfast, don’t stress! Claims that all processed foods are unhealthy should not be trusted. There are plenty of processed foods that are actually good for us and should be part of our regular dietary intake.
What are processed foods?
To put it simply, the term ‘processed’ describes foods that have been altered in some way from their natural state. Freezing, canning, drying and pasteurising are all food processing techniques, so most of what we buy at the supermarket is processed in one way or another. Even some whole foods are likely to have been processed- fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains may have been washed, trimmed, shelled, husked, ground or wrapped before they end up in your trolley. These processes don’t mean a food is unhealthy.
When us dietitians refer to processed foods, we’re typically referring to food products that have been majorly modified and bear little to no resemblance to their original state. That includes foods such as chips, lollies or store bought biscuits, which have been made shelf-stable and ready to eat. Or frozen pizzas, pastries such as pies and sausage rolls, ready made meals, ice creams and soft drinks, which are super-sized and heavily marketed, making them easy to over consume.
These packaged foods tend to have a long list of ingredients and are high in added salt, sugar and fat. Often they are also loaded with kilojoules.
So are all processed foods bad?
Not every processed food is an unhealthy choice. Some foods need processing to make them safe or suitable to consume, such as milk, which is pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Frozen fruit and veg have most of their vitamins and minerals sealed in with them, while canned produce allows for year-round use, easy storage and cooking, less waste and lower costs.
‘Processed’ is not the dirty word it’s made out to be, but the overwhelming research promoting a diet based on primarily whole foods should not be ignored.
Ways to AVOID overly processed foods
1 READ THE LABEL
A long list of ingredients full of words you can’t pronounce is a
sign that a food is overly processed. Avoid products that list sugar or salt
amongst the first few ingredients.
2 SHOP THE PERIMETER
Supermarket centre aisles are where you’ll find most of the highly
processed foods, such as soft drinks, lollies and biscuits. Look beyond these
and shop in the end aisles
3 RAID THE FREEZER
Supermarket freezers stock much more than just frozen pizzas and
ice cream. Choose snap-frozen packs of fruit + veg that are often more
affordable than their fresh counterparts.
4 SNACK SMARTER
While a chocolate bar or bag of salty chips may seem more
convenient, snacking on a handful of nuts, a small tub of yoghurt or a
refreshing piece of fruit is also quick and easy.
Beneficial trolley buys
Processed foods that are good for you
Because of their long shelf life, processed cereals are a pantry staple for most Australians. Avoid choosing high-sugar and high-salt varieties and look for products with a health star rating on the pack. These cereals are often fortified with vitamins + minerals, making them an easy, convenient and high-fibre breakfast option.
Sanitarium Weet-Bix – Cholesterol Lowering Bread
Choose wholemeal or wholegrain bread over white bread, as the latter has been refined to contain significantly less fibre than the former. Heavy wholegrain loaves, such as soy-linseed or mixed grain, are the most nutritious choices because they’re high in fibre and heart-healthy fats, with a lower glycaemic index (GI.
Helga’s Digestive Wellbeing Barley, Seeds & Grain Bread
MILK & YOGHURT
Milk is your premium source of healthy bone-strengthening calcium, while yoghurt contains gut-friendly probiotics. Most dairy products undergo a process called pasteurisation, which kills off any potentially harmful bacteria, and homogenisation, which gives milk it’s smooth and creamy texture.
The Culture Co. Probiotic Kefir Yogurt With A Hint of Strawberry
MICROWABLE RICE & QUINOA
These trusty pantry saviours usually have a shelf life of about 1 year and are a convenient source of starchy carbs. Plenty of wholegrain varieties with added fibre are also now available. Try to avoid flavoured varieties as these tend to contain more additives and may also have large amounts of salt. Always check nutrition labels to be sure you are making the healthiest choices.
SunRice Gluten Free Brown Rice & Quinoa
Natural cheese is made from just four ingredients: milk, salt, starter culture and an enzyme. Processed cheese is made from high-quality emulsifiers, which stop the fat from separating when heated. This also helps the cheese maintain its flavour, texture and smoothness. If you’re watching your salt intake, choose a reduced salt variety.
South Cape Danish Style Reduced Fat Fetta
The sealing and high-pressure cooking of foods in cans helps lock in the nutrients, meaning many of them are just as good as the fresh option. They also count towards your 5 daily serves of vegies. Just make sure that you are buying the low salt varieties.
Edgell’s No Added Salt Red Kidney Beans
Boost your heart-friendly omega 3 fats intake by having two to three serves a week of oily fish, such as sardines, tuna and salmon. Most plain canned fish varieties have a few extra ingredients added, but some contain added oil or salt, always make sure to check the ingredients list.
Sirena Tuna In Springwater
Often criticised for being high in fat and salt, and low in fibre, choosing one of the healthier, readymade options can actually be better for you than skipping a meal or buying takeaway. They can also help you gain more knowledge about what a suitable portion size should look like.
Super Nature Homemade Sweet Potato Cottage Pie
FROZEN FRUIT & VEGETABLES
Also counting towards your 2 and 5 a day intake, frozen fruit & veg contain loads of nutrients- often more than fresh produce kept in the fridge for a week. As they’re frozen straight after being harvested, they don’t have any time to lose valuable vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin C and folate.
Birds Eye Frozen Veggie Mash Pumpkin & Cauli