by Hannah McIntyre & Christina Scribner
Processed to Perfection: Exploring the Role of Processed Foods
Chances are you’ve heard some narrative about processed foods. Lots of people and even experts in the field of nutrition talk about the potential downsides of consuming a diet high in processed foods. While they aren’t necessarily wrong, they are missing the whole other half of the conversation. What many of them aren’t discussing are the potential benefits that processed foods may provide. In this post, we will explore how processed foods may have some advantages and what to consider when making food choices.
What Exactly are Processed Foods?
Before we explore the role of processed foods in our diet, let’s start by defining what processed foods are “exactly.” Processed foods are ones that have been altered in some way from their original form. This includes everything from apples picked fresh from the tree that have been washed, sliced, and packaged for safety and convenience all the way to grandma’s apple pie – which you most definitely can’t just pick off a tree.
There is a range of potential processing that food may go through. Processing ranges from unprocessed/minimally processed to ultra-processed. While tools exist to classify foods based on levels of processing, those classification systems fall short in their ability to recognize nutrient contributions and thus reliably classify food based on its value to an individual. For example, I submitted my organic, whole milk, kefir to one of the classification systems and it was rated as a “bad food,” “unknown environmental impact,” and “ultra-processed.” Whereas, my pretzel chips were rated as “poor nutritional quality,” “low environmental impact,” and “processed food.” The main thing to understand is that most foods are processed in some way, even seemingly simple processing as in the washed and pre-sliced apple example. Typically, the more ingredients added to a food that you might not recognize or have in your own kitchen as ingredients, leads to being classified as more processed.
Are Processed Foods Bad?
With all this talk of processing and different degrees to which a food might undergo processing, how do you know if processed food is good or bad? You may be thinking that the sliced apples seem okay, but what about the apple pie?
This idea of good foods and bad foods is where a lot of well-meaning people have gone astray. There is no universal parameter that can distinguish whether a food is good or bad. I am sure you are familiar with the expression, “there is a time and place for everything,” and when it comes to food it’s true. We are all individuals with unique and valid needs that vary from day-to-day depending on personal taste/texture preference, availability, socio-cultural factors, cost, and convenience. Therefore, it’s not helpful to think of food in this black-or-white, good-or-bad way.
To take this a step further, let’s go back to the apple pie example. Most people would agree that apple pie is a processed food. It has added ingredients including butter and sugar and is not something that can be found naturally in nature. Some people may look at these facts and label apple pie as a bad or unhealthy food. For some individuals, such as those allergic to apples, it may very well be a food to avoid. On the flip side, apple pie may contribute to joy around a special holiday, provide needed energy, or be a great way to get those macros, phytonutrients, and fiber found in apples. There are lots of reasons to eat apple pie and it’s not as simple as labeling it good/bad. Instead, apple pie may be more, or less, beneficial depending on the individual and specific circumstances. Consider this same scenario with other foods such as sports bars and drinks, or supplemental, ready-to-drink shakes.
Benefits of Processed Foods?
There are lots of potential benefits to processed foods and they may serve legitimate purposes. Processed foods are often very portable, convenient, and quick options. They may also be a source of concentrated energy to help satisfy hunger and ensure adequate nutrition during times of low appetite or high energy needs versus eating larger volumes of less calorie-dense foods. Processed foods can be more accessible and affordable. They might also provide adequate nutrition when you may be short on time or cooking skill and make the difference between being able to fuel your body or going hungry.
Which Foods to Choose?
Now this post wouldn’t be complete without some talk about the benefits of choosing a diet where whole and minimally processed foods predominate. Whole food such as legumes, nuts, fruit, veggies, and whole grains are rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber, and confer numerous health benefits such as reducing inflammation and preventing chronic diseases. Including these foods in your regular eating pattern benefits your health.
Choosing highly processed foods less often makes a lot of sense. But that doesn’t mean your diet needs to be 100% whole or minimally processed. Processed foods provide certain benefits, depending on the circumstances and frequency. Even food and nutrition professionals are unable to identify an ideal consumption level.
Dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and cardiovascular health recommend: “Choose minimally processed instead of ultra-processed foods” (American Heart Association) and “A healthy eating pattern limits highly processed foods and refined grain products” (American Cancer Society).
Choosing a variety of foods along the spectrum of processing can lead to a balanced and healthy diet, allowing for dietary flexibility, without being unnecessarily rigid and restrictive.
When choosing what to eat, consider potential benefits of a particular food at a particular time. Ask yourself “does this food best match my needs right now?” Are you in a rush and need something convenient? Racing down the trail on your bike and you need simple, low volume, concentrated energy? Or maybe you haven’t had any produce today and an apple with nut butter is just what you need. Every individual and situation could lead to a different answer to this question. Check in with yourself and your unique needs when making food decisions.
What each of us needs will be different and even within an individual our needs will vary depending on the circumstance. Include a variety of foods that match your food preparation skill set, considering cultural, social, financial, and nutritional needs. Perfect is not possible and nothing is off-limits – unless you are intolerant to it!
Is it necessary or even helpful to classify individual foods based on their processing or is awareness of overall diet quality and eating pattern enough? We support the “all foods fit” in a balanced eating pattern. Read ingredient lists on packaged processed foods and when it makes sense, select less-processed options by limiting foods with ingredients not used in home cooking. Make the best choice available to meet your needs in the moment.