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What Does Processed Food Mean?

Have you watched the news lately talking negatively about processed foods blaming them for the rise in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes? What exactly are processed foods, and are they really that bad for your health?

Processed foods are defined by the USDA as any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed, or packaged. Anything done to them that alters their natural state. This may include adding preservatives, flavors, nutrients, other food additives, or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats.

Which foods are more highly processed? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ranks processed foods from "minimally processed" to "highly processed". Examples of minimally processed foods, are fresh blueberries, cut vegetables and roasted nuts, which are simply prepared for convenience. Foods processed at their peak of ripeness to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, tuna, and frozen fruit or vegetables.

Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture, such as sweeteners, spices, oils, color and preservatives, include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes, all considered processed foods. Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, chips, and deli meat, are more heavily processed. The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or premade meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

Minimally processed foods have a place in healthy diets. For example, low-fat milk, whole-grain, or wheat breads, precut vegetables and fresh-cut greens are considered processed foods. Also, milks and juices may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium, while breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruits packed in water or natural fruit juice can be part of a healthy diet when fresh fruit isn't easily available. Remember, products that list "natural" or "organic" doesn't mean they are healthier products.

Eating processed foods on occasion is fine. However, look for hidden sugar, fat, and salt, especially those added during processing. Most Nutrition Facts labels now include added sugars. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10% of total calories from added sugars.

When it comes to sodium, people often comment they don't put salt on their food. As it turns out, manufacturers have already added salt for you—and much more than needed. The Dietary Guidelines recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Look for low-or reduced-sodium foods. Also, try rinsing canned vegetables with water to remove some of the sodium. Eat minimally processed foods or fresh foods as often as possible.

Screening the type of fat you consume is important. Stick to unsaturated fats such as olive oil or peanut oil, monounsaturated fats. Some polyunsaturated fats include canola, vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower and sunflower oils. Keep away from hydrogenated, and saturated solid fats like lard, stick margarine, butter and trans-fat. Educate yourself on what to look for and talk with your health care professional or nutrition expert to discuss a food plan that works best for you. The key to healthy eating starts with you.

Source: Karen Ensle, Rutgers Cooperative Extension

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