I grew up in the dark. I only knew what I was told. I considered processed foods to be part of my diet because the foods simply tasted good, and they are affordable, so that’s what my family ate.
Before I started my studies in holistic nutrition, I would occasionally eat processed foods. Now I rarely have them unless I trust the company and the ingredients. Nearly 90% of what I eat is a whole food. The number is probably greater for the couple of months I’ve been changing my diet with a transformation program and a Candida and parasite cleanse diet. Processed foods are always on the “to avoid” list. That doesn’t surprise me.
Processed foods, abundant and popular as they are, present a significant question about our health and wellness. For optimal health, should we even be eating processed foods? Many argue that food processing makes food more available. Convenience is also a major benefit for some people. I’m not so sure that having these foods available is necessarily a good thing.
There is a lot of information available about processed foods. How do you separate fact from fiction, or the myths from the truth? Are some processed foods healthier than others? Here are 10 myths and facts that you should know.
Myth No. 1: Processed Foods Still Contain Nutrition
Fact: The added nutrition is not beneficial. You have to consider what may be making the processed food nutritious. There are some non-dairy milk and other products that contain enriched vitamins and minerals, which are moderately beneficial to health. Sometimes there are vitamins removed during processing, and added back into the processed food. Cereals, baby formulas and milk or milk products are common processed foods that have been fortified; nutrients that were not previously there have been added. However, there are also processed foods that lose beneficial nutrients completely when processed. Grains and flours do not regain the chromium, zinc or B6 after the food is processed.
Myth No. 2: Frozen and Canned Foods Aren’t Healthy
Fact: There are healthier frozen and canned options. This is another case of looking at the ingredient list. There are some vegetables and fruits that are flash-frozen, and the only ingredients are the fruits or vegetables; however, some brands still contain genetically modified ingredients, additives and preservatives. It also matters how you cook your food as well. Sautee your vegetables and avoid heating them in the microwave. Also, consider the healthier option for canned products. Minimally processed canned beans or soups may have a place within a healthy diet. Look for bisphenol (BPA)-free symbols on the label. BPA is considered a toxic substance.
Myth No. 3: All Processed or Packaged Foods are Unhealthy
Fact: There are healthy packaged foods. Just because a food is in a package, should you avoid it? Do processed foods have no place in a healthy diet? There may be foods within packages; however, there is limited processing and they can be part of a healthy diet. Healthy foods such as brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, or kamut are often packaged, and they are always the only ingredients. Avoid processed ingredients such as additives, preservatives, food coloring or artificial sweeteners. The other side of the coin is that there are many food staples, such as bread or milk, that are highly processed. Breads may contain food additives and genetically modified (GMO) ingredients, while milk commonly contains antibiotics and growth hormones.
Myth No. 4: Processed Gluten-Free is Good for You
Fact: Gluten-free food is still processed food: A processed gluten-free food product such as cookies, granola bars or cereal is still processed and may contain added sugar, food additives or other chemicals. The people best suited for gluten-free processed foods are those with Celiac disease, autism spectrum disorder, or people with gluten allergies or sensitivities. There are many important plant-based, gluten-free foods that people should always incorporate within a healthy diet anyway, such as buckwheat, millet, amaranth, teff or wild rice. It is smart to avoid processed gluten-free or gluten foods as much as possible if you don’t have a gluten-restricted condition. Whole wheat flour or spelt are unprocessed gluten foods that are safe to eat for people without dietary restrictions.
Myth No. 5: Organic Processed Foods are Better for You
Fact: Some organic processed foods may be just as bad: Organic is sometimes a buzzword, especially when it comes to processed foods. There are certified organic products that may be beneficial to your diet, such as organic brown rice, wild rice or organic peanut butter; however, organic cookies or crackers may still contain added sugar or salt. USDA Organic-labeled products may also contain 5% non-organic ingredients. Some reasons people consume organic cereals or breads are to avoid the GMO ingredients within the non-organic products.
Myth No. 6: Eat Anything as Long as You Watch Your Calories
Fact: Calorie counters lack essential nutrients. Many buzzwords are thrown around these days. “Fat-free” and “reduced calories” are phrases you can find on food labels, which are really just strategic marketing techniques. A lot of fat-free foods—cookies, crackers, sweets—contain empty calories and should be avoided or eaten on rare occasion. Many people count calories when they’re on a diet and try to stick with low-calorie foods. Processed low-calorie products, though, still contain food additives and preservatives. You are better off counting nutrients and eating more low-calorie, nutrition-packed fruits and vegetables.
Myth No. 7: Salads Are Always the Healthy Restaurant Choice
Fact: Salads may not be healthy without the right dressing. Salads are often the healthier options at restaurants; however, the salad dressing will determine whether it is a healthy food choice. The vegetables within the salad are most likely nutritious, but that may not matter unless you use the proper salad dressing, according to a 2012 Purdue University study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Study researchers fed 29 people salads with monounsaturated, saturated and polyunsaturated fat-based dressings. The participants were tested for fat-soluble absorption for carotenoids such as zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, which are linked to the risk reduction of cardiovascular disease and cancer. The monounsaturated salad dressings containing olive oil would promote adequate carotenoid absorption compared to the other fat-based dressing options. Your best bet is to combine extra virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil and avocado oil, and create your own salad dressings. Avoid those processed salad dressings you’ll find in the grocery store.
Myth No. 8: Whole Wheat and Multigrain are Similar
Fact: Whole wheat and multigrain are different. Bread is a common processed food that can be found in everyone’s shopping cart. Many people may even assume that as long as they purchase whole grain or multigrain breads, they are making healthy choices. People may even believe that multigrain is the same as whole grain. Multigrain breads contain multiple grains, but they may not even contain whole grains. In fact, they may also lack nutrition after they are refined and processed. Whole grain products are considered unrefined with intact germ, bran and endosperm. When you do purchase whole grain or multigrain products, look for the “100% Whole Grains Council” stamp, which clarifies whether the entire product is whole grain. There are also certain brands of breads that contain additives, preservatives and GMO ingredients.
Myth No. 9: Yogurt and Dairy are Perfectly Healthy Processed Foods
Fact: Processed yogurt and dairy still contain unhealthy ingredients. Yogurt products are part of many so-called healthy eating habits; however, added sugar and fruit within yogurt may disrupt the benefits from the good bacteria and cultures within the product. The sugar may feed yeast and contribute to possible yeast overgrowth in the body. Look for plain organic yogurt without the added sugar or fruit. Also note that non-organic dairy products contain antibiotics, and the genetically engineered bovine growth hormones rBGH and rBST, which have been linked to infertility and weakened muscle development.
Myth No. 10: There is Healthy Fast Food
Fact: Fast food is still fast food. You can dress it up all you want. Processed food is still processed food. Fast food restaurants will attempt to put healthy spins on their food because more people are becoming aware of the importance of healthy eating. When hamburger restaurants promote burgers made without the use of antibiotics and steroids, that’s a step in the right direction; however, unless you’re eating only the burger patty, it may be best to avoid the burger altogether. The bun may contain genetically modified ingredients and the condiments also contain food additives and preservatives.
Processed foods may be easier to prepare. They may fit within your schedule and they may even taste good; however, your long-term health is at risk. Be smart about your food choices and check the ingredient labels for anything you don’t recognize. Chances are it shouldn’t be put into your body.
Just something to think about the next time you walk through the aisles of the grocery store.
Haas, E., et al., Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2006), 436.
“Study: No-fat, low-fat dressings don’t get most nutrients out of salads,” Science Daily website, June 19, 2012; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120619230234.htm.
Nichols, N., “15 Simple Truths about Food,” Spark People website; http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/slideshow.asp?show=41, last accessed July 18, 2014.