We all know processed foods are bad, they should be banished from grocery store shelves. A great idea in theory, but in practicality it probably wouldn’t play out so pleasantly for most of us. Not because it is a poor health choice (quite the opposite) but because our busy lives do not allow for making everything from scratch. If we want to be sticklers, many nutritious staples like bread, canned tomatoes, and frozen berries can all be considered processed foods. I know that I certainly don’t have the funds or the time to buy only fresh produce year round and bake bread weekly. Thus, making distinctions, and as always, understanding our food is very important.
A good rule of thumb is to look for foods that look most like their original form. Foods that are fried, pureed, or batter coated have probably gone through heavy processing. We can be guaranteed that any savoury food with an electric orange colour parted ways with real, dairy cheese a long, long time ago. The more a food has been altered, the more opportunities for loss of nutrients, protein, fibre, and flavour (resulting in an increase in added sugar, fat, and salt – because no one would buy kraft dinner if it tasted like sawdust). If it ready out of the box or can, or you can get a full cooked “meal” in less than 2 minutes, or you’re not sure what foods that product was originally made of, chances are it’s highly processed. Best to consume these just once in a while.
What we’re really looking for is minimally processed foods. Things like canned tomatoes and beans and fish, whole-grain flours and breads, pre-chopped and/or frozen fruits and vegetables fall into this category. In these cases the processing is generally to increase shelf life, preserve palatability, or increase ease of use. So long as there is very little added in the way of sugar, salt, and fats (unless it’s healthy fats), these are wonderful additions to any grocery cart. These processed foods make it easier for more people to afford nutritious foods and they significantly increase the likelyhood that we will actually eat these foods.
Ideally, we would all do it all from scratch, but ideally, we would all also get enough activity every day, learn another language, take our cars for regular maintenance, etc. Our world is less than perfect and our society does not foster the healthy eating and living habits we spout so virtuously. I’d rather see someone using canned beans in dishes than choosing to avoid legumes altogether because cooking them takes nearly forever. I’d rather see someone eat bagged salad than have 2 heads of lettuce rotting in their crisper.
Make from scratch as much as you can (including minimally processed foods), challenge yourself to find alternatives to pre-made or instant favourites, give yourself time for your tastes to adapt, and don’t beat yourself up about the occasional box of kraft dinner.