These Processed Foods Are Good For You, Actually

Everything’s fine in moderation, as they say.
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Processed foods have been getting a lot of heat in the news recently. But sometimes they can be unfairly demonised, as there are many foods that most would consider healthy that are processed in some way.

Firstly, it might be handy to look at what processed food actually means. The NHS describes it as being food that has been altered in some way during preparation.

This can be as basic as freezing, canning, baking or drying out. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product is laden with sugar, fat, salt and a cornucopia of chemicals you can’t pronounce.

There are levels to it, though

Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, came up with what’s known as the NOVA food classification system, which places food into four categories based on how processed they are. They include:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

This includes produce such as fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds that have no added ingredients and have been little altered from their natural state.

2. Processed ingredients

This includes foods that are added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves, such as salt, sugar and oils.

3. Processed foods

These are foods that are made by combining foods from groups one and two, which are altered in a way that home cooks could do themselves.

They include foods such as jam, pickles, tinned fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses.

4. Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a longer shelf life.

What are some healthier processed foods?

TikTok creator Andy the Dietician shared a video showing her shopping for nutrient-dense processed foods — many that you wouldn’t even consider as being ‘processed’.

“First, we have mandarin oranges,” she says, as she shows a tub of ready-cut oranges in fruit juice. “They’re great for vitamin C.

“Next, there’s canned tuna, which contains a great source of omega-3. We also have black beans, a great source of fibre, and dark chocolate, which contains a ton of antioxidants.

“Frozen veggies have lots of nutrients, too, which is great for overall health. And yoghurt, which is a good source of calcium and protein.”

Yup, even yoghurt is considered processed.

Some examples of other ‘healthy’ or minimally-processed foods include:

  • Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit,
  • Dried, canned and frozen beans and legumes like lentils and chickpeas,
  • Whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley and quinoa,
  • Fresh and frozen poultry and meat,
  • Fresh, frozen and canned fish and seafood,
  • Tofu and tempeh.

Did you know that some processed foods contain several nutrients that are beneficial to your overall health? Let's stop giving processed foods a bad reputation! Follow for more tips! #blackdietitian #nutrition #processedfood #healthyeating #dietitian #intuitiveeating

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The debate about ultra-processed foods

There are some processed foods, known as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), that have been found to be detrimental to human health.

Dr Sarah Berry, a nutrition expert, told the Guardian that “there’s very clear observational data showing that people who have higher intakes of ultra-processed foods have higher levels of ill-health, whether it be cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity or type 2 diabetes”.

People have taken to social media to protest the floating of a potential ban on ultra-processed foods in the UK, such as sausages, crisps, ice cream and mass-produced bread, which currently makes up 57% of British people’s energy intake.

One of the main doctors leading the charge warning about the dangers of ultra-processed foods, Dr Chris van Tulleken, actually says a ban wouldn’t be a good idea.

In a tweet, he said: “Banning ultra-processed food would be disastrous ... People need more choice not less. UPF [ultra-processed food] is the most affordable, available food for many people in the UK. You can’t ban food that people are dependent on.”

Science writer James Wong agreed, tweeting: “That’s baby formula out, then. And nutritional supplements for sick and malnourished people. Even tap water is ‘ultra processed’. This binary way of talking about food, based on ideology not evidence, is so bloody dangerous.”

In terms of what to eat, the NHS recommends reading nutrition labels to help you choose between processed products and to keep a check on fat, salt and sugar content.

Most pre-packed foods have nutrition information on the front, back or side of the packaging, and you can use the traffic light colour-coding system to guide you.