What comes to mind when you think or hear the term, ‘processed food?’ Potato chips, cookies, pizza, cheese? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines processed food as “…any food that has been deliberately changed in some way before consumption.”

Sooooo….everything?!

Well processing does include cooking, canning, freezing, or packaging and I bet I just described the state of most of the food in your home. Even bagged spinach, olive oil, and granola bars are considered processed by definition; so is there any way that processed foods can be included in a healthy, balanced diet?

There is a range when it comes to categorizing processed foods. From minimally to heavily processed, foods change significantly. Vegetables and fruits that are packaged for convenience or stored to maintain freshness are considered minimally processed options. The most heavily processed foods are pre-made meals like frozen pizza and TV dinners. Generally, the more processed a food item is, the greater amount of empty calories it has. Unfortunately, convenience wins the fight against fresh food in America causing most of us to be overweight and widespread poor health conditions. You can learn to distinguish between consuming and feeding your family minimally processed foods and heavily processed ones. This skill includes becoming familiar with nutrition labels and hunting out hidden sugars, sodium, and added fats.

Be aware that added sugars are in many food products including bread, juice, granola, cereal, protein supplements, spaghetti sauce, soups, fruit and nut spreads, dips, and sport drinks to name a few. Added sugars are any sugar form that is not naturally already in the food or drink and has been added for taste. Sugars that are added to foods will be listed in the ingredients list of your nutrition label such as brown sugar, cane sugar, fructose, dextrose, or high-fructose corn syrup.

Excess sodium is used by the food industry to preserve food and lengthen their shelf life. Processed foods are sodium-harbors. Many restaurants use high sodium foods because they are tastier, and will keep longer than fresh foods. When shopping, look for low to no sodium options of the foods you already buy, and you may be able to cut out a substantial amount of salt of you and your family’s diet.

Lastly, the dreaded fats: saturated and trans. These both raise bad cholesterol levels while lowering good cholesterol. These are printed clearly on nutrition labels as well, and they serve to make foods taste better and hold texture longer. At all costs, look for zero grams of trans fats and low-fat options. BUT, BEWARE…many food manufacturers will decrease the amount of fat in their products and advertise this heavily to appeal to healthy-minded consumers (YOU!). The only problem with this is that the products generally have greater amounts of added sugar than their ‘regular-fat’ counterparts.

Now that you know how foods become processed, where are they sold in the grocery store? The aisles and parts of the frozen foods section.  If the foods comes in a bag and/or a box, it is mostly likely processed.  There are a few exceptions, but the majority of the products sold in the aisles are processed, such as potato chips, bars, etc. If you are buying frozen meals (aka tv diners, frozen pizzas) rest assured that it is a processed food.

So how do you avoid processed foods? Stay out of the aisles.  The fresh foods that haven’t been processed are usually located along the perimeter of the store.

Hopefully, after reading this blog and  reading labels in the grocery store, you have the knowledge base you need to outsmart the manufacturers and advertising companies.

Our health very well may depend on it.

authored by kenny palmer