The truth is, not all processed foods are unhealthy. There, I said it. Some of the healthiest foods are processed in some way. Rolled oats? Processed. Pistachios? Processed. Canned chickpeas? Those are processed, too.
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"'Processed foods' has become a buzzword term, and it's unfortunate because it gives a lot of healthy foods a bad rap," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, dietitian, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table.
"So many people say they avoid 'processed foods,' but I don't think they really understand what that means, otherwise they'd be walking around eating a stalk of wheat instead of a slice of whole-grain bread," Taub-Dix says. "Even if you buy carrots from the store, if you bring them home and peel and steam them, that's processing."
It's true. And processed foods can not only be healthy, but they can even help us lose weight, if done right. Let's clear up any misunderstandings by addressing and solving for some of the common mistakes we make when shopping for (or avoiding) processed foods.
1. Choosing Ultra-Processed Foods Over Processed Foods
Here's the catch: There's a difference between processed foods like plain yogurt and canned tomatoes and ultra-processed foods like diet lemonade or a Boston cream pie-flavored yogurt with artificial flavors and sweeteners. They've all been processed in some way, but the degree to which varies.
Also, ultra-processed foods may have artificial additives like coloring, sweeteners and flavoring. Ultra-processed foods, if consumed regularly, can have negative effects on our health, including — yup — weight gain.
One example is a small clinical trial published in Cell Metabolism in May 2019, which looked at the impact an ultra-processed diet has on weight versus a minimally processed diet. The researchers in the study fed some people ultra-processed foods like blueberry yogurt, diet lemonade and canned beef-and-bean chili, while the other group received oatmeal (with blueberries and almonds), salad with chicken breast and farro and beef tender roast with couscous and green beans. Both groups were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted at meal times. After two weeks, the researchers found that the ultra-processed group gained about 2 pounds while the minimally processed group lost about two pounds. The latter naturally ate about 500 fewer calories per day.
2. Sticking to the Perimeter of the Supermarket
The old advice to "stick to the perimeter" is not only outdated, it's out of touch. "Now, I love foods in the perimeter — the produce is my favorite — but we need to make the most of the middle too," Taub-Dix says. "If you skip the middle, you're missing out on so many nutritious foods like beans, pasta and almonds. Beans especially are nutrient-dense, they're inexpensive and easy to store."
The initial intention behind this shopping guidance was good because so many ultra-processed foods exist in the middle of the supermarket, but so do many healthy, minimally processed and often less-expensive food. The middle also often houses products that allow for shortcuts for busy families like canned beans and vegetables, pre-cooked brown rice, frozen fruits and veggies and so on.
3. Not Checking the Ingredient List
If you're trying to eat less heavily processed foods, then this is one habit you'll want to change.
For example, there are bars on the market with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fiber, fat and protein, along with almost 20 vitamins and minerals, which by the nutrition facts panel read like a healthy food. But if you look at the ingredient list, you'll see items like fractioned palm kernel oil, maltitol, polydextrose, marshmallow, sugar, sucralose and so on. If you just scan the nutrition facts panel and skip the ingredient list, you're not getting the full picture of what's actually in the bar.
To determine if a food is ultra-processed, you really need to turn the package over and read the label. You might find an almond butter with added salt or added sugar, and you'd be better off in most cases choosing the almond butter with just almonds on its ingredient list.
But it's also not that black and white, Taub-Dix says. You have to look at the big picture, and at your whole day. If you like the almond butter with sugar and you find you don't need jelly, you're likely better off in the end. Ultimately, it's about finding balance in your diet.
4. Being Afraid of Ingredients Just Because You Can’t Pronounce Them
"There's also a lot of mixed message out there in media like, 'If you can't pronounce an ingredient, you shouldn't eat it,' or 'Don't eat a food with more than five ingredients' — but those are scare tactics and quick soundbites," Taub-Dix says.
In some cases, the added ingredients are actually good for us. You might find ascorbic acid listed on the ingredient list and think it's some chemical added to your food when in fact it's vitamin C.
"Or, for instance, I love Dave's Killer Bread and it has about 25 ingredients, but it's still a healthy, whole-grain bread with fiber and protein," Taub-Dix says. "If you don't know what an ingredient is, look it up. You should question and be informed, but don't miss out on nutritious food just because there's an ingredient you can't pronounce or there's more than five ingredients."
5. Not Knowing the Many Names for Sugar and Salt
Added sugar and salt can be sneaky when it comes to the ingredient list because they go by many names.
"One thing to be aware of is that sugar is the master of aliases. There's high-fructose corn syrup, organic cane sugar and many more," warns Taub-Dix.
Other common names for added sugar, according to the University of California San Francisco, include: agave nectar, barley malt, beet sugar, cane juice, caramel, carob syrup, date sugar, fructose, invert sugar, maltodextrin, molasses, palm sugar, raw sugar, rice syrup and sorghum syrup. The amount of added sugars is also required to be listed on the nutrition facts panel.
The American Heart Association shares other monikers for salt, including disodium guanylate (GMP), sodium bicarbonate, sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, sodium glutamate, sodium lactate and sodium phosphate. The sodium content will also appear on the nutrition facts panel, so make sure to read thoroughly before you buy.
- Cell Metabolism: "Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake"
- University of California San Francisco: "Hidden in Plain Sight"
- American Heart Association: "21 Ingredients (That Mean Sodium) to Watch on the Label"