Supermarkets sell hundreds of processed foods. These items have longer shelf lives and require less preparation than many fresh alternatives, making them an attractive choice for busy consumers. Although processed foods can be used to make fast, easy meals, they tend to be less nutritious than fresh or homemade foods.
Modern food processing began in the 19th century, when inventors developed vacuum bottling, canning and pasteurization techniques, reports Aeroponic Garden Seeds. Military campaigns initially used processed foods because they were portable and less perishable than fresh meals. Today, food manufacturers process foods by freezing, canning, vacuum-packing, smoking, adding preservatives and irradiation. Food processing lengthens shelf life, increases the ease of shipping and provides fast, convenient meals for consumers.
Most foods undergo some type of post-production processing. The most heavily processed foods contain many oils, sweeteners, starches, fats and salt to lengthen shelf life and improve taste. Chips, crackers, candy, fast food and canned goods tend to be heavily processed. Packaged ready-to-eat meals contain large quantities of chemical additives and preservatives. Pre-packaged baked goods, including cakes, cookies and cupcakes, often include many sweeteners and preservatives to improve their texture.
Processed foods are typically less healthy than their fresher counterparts. They contain high levels of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and high fructose corn syrup. These additives increase flavor but do not enhance the nutritional value of the food, which is why processed foods are said to contain "empty calories." Overall, processed foods contain more calories than unprocessed foods. Eating these foods promotes weight gain, and may result in adverse health consequences.
Some processed foods are fortified with beneficial vitamins and minerals. Cereals, granola bars, dairy products and certain beverages often contain added nutrients. While eating fortified foods helps your body get the nutrients it needs, fortification does not necessarily make a food healthy. High-calorie, fatty foods can contain beneficial vitamins and minerals. In general, consuming vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables is healthier than eating fortified foods, according to The Atlantic.
A diet high in processed foods may be harmful to your health. These foods are high in sodium, which promotes high blood pressure and increases risk of stroke. MayoClinic.com recommends consuming no more than 1,500mg of sodium daily. The saturated and trans fats found in processed foods increase cholesterol levels and boost cardiovascular risk. Keep consumption of these fats to a minimum. Eating a lot of high-calorie processed foods will cause you to become overweight or obese, which increases your risk of chronic disease and decreases longevity.
A healthy diet can include small portions of processed foods. Balance your diet with complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats. Eat processed foods as an occasional snack or treat, rather than the focal point of a meal. Abruptly eliminating all processed foods from your diet may cause binging and a return to unhealthy eating patterns. Instead, slowly increase your intake of fresh foods and decrease processed food consumption. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist to set goals for healthy eating and design a meal plan that works for you.