Processed foods . . . can be good for you?

September 27, 2011

The dietary zeitgeist favors foods that are “whole” and “local” over those that are “processed” and “packaged.”

But omitting processed, packaged foods can make it hard to meet your body’s dietary needs. And although not all processed foods are of equal quality, the best of them can deliver lots of nutrition without doing you any harm.

“Food processing has been around for a long time,” says Connie Weaver, head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University. Weaver says she grew up on a farm “where a childhood activity was picking food and processing it in the kitchen. You harvest food all at once, but you can’t eat it all at once,” she notes, adding that much of the harvest had to be preserved so her family could eat year-round.

“It is not a good recommendation to think people can have ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ foods meet all their nutrient needs,” says Weaver, who spoke about the value of processed foods Sunday at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo of the American Dietetic Association in San Diego. In any case, she says, it’s kind of a moot point: Issues of seasonality and transportation make it impossible for all of us to access fresh and local foods all the time. Like it or not, she says, “we depend on a lot of processed foods.”

Most people might think of processed food as something that comes wrapped in plastic from a factory across the country. But Cooking Light magazine editor Scott Mowbray points out that anything you do with food is “processing.” So the question isn’t whether your food has been cooked, baked, fermented, canned, frozen, mashed or ground but whether it’s been processed in such a way that “what’s left in the package is healthy” and retains its key nutrients.

In its October issue, Cooking Light offers its second annual roundup of the best packaged and processed foods available at grocery stores nationwide. The list’s 24 categories include items you might expect — gluten-free pasta made with brown rice flour — and some you might not, such as ranch dressing, frozen burritos and potato chips.

Cooking Light also includes shredded wheat cereals, both frosted and unfrosted, among its choices. Indeed, Weaver notes that for many people, ready-to-eat cereals, which she describes as “very processed,” are a key source of nutrients, many of which are added to the product through fortification.

So avoiding all processed foods is “ridiculous,” in Weaver’s estimation. “You just have to be somewhat selective.”

In seeking the best examples of each packaged food, Cooking Light staff members “go through every label looking for ingredients” that signal a processed food might not be the best choice. Those include excess sodium, artificial colors, trans fats, artificial sweeteners and “too many stabilizers, which portend a product that’s not going to taste as good,” Mowbray says. Common stabilizers include xanthan gum, guar gum and gum arabic.

Weaver suggests scanning nutrition labels “for disproportionate amounts of fat, salt and sugar.” That can help you discern the nutritional difference between, say, a can of corn vs. a bag of corn chips. Both are forms of processed corn, but the latter typically has more salt and fat than its nutritional value warrants, she says.

The best way to assess a food’s value is to decipher its nutrition facts panel. Besides the basics of paying attention to calories and serving size, here are tips to guide you from the Food and Drug Administration:

●Choose products with high daily value percentages (20 percent or more per serving) of fiber and of vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.

●Look for low daily value percentages (5 percent or less) of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.●

●The following terms signal added sugars, which contain lots of calories but little nutrition value: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey and maple syrup.

“There is a huge continuum of processed foods,” Weaver says. “It’s not so easy to categorize processed foods as good or bad. We just have to be smart about it, a little more sophisticated.”

All processed foods are not created equal

Here’s my roundup of foods that, though processed and packaged, pack a nutritional wallop. Bonus: Most are pretty easy on the wallet.

Yogurt: The process that makes yogurt yogurt is probably also what makes it so good for you. In addition to the calcium and protein, vitamins and minerals yogurt delivers, the active bacteria cultures that give it its tangy taste are probiotics that are thought to provide digestive health benefits.

Canned beans: Beans are an excellent source of protein (especially for those who don’t eat meat) and fiber. Sure, you can buy, dry and soak them (thereby processing them yourself). But you can’t beat the convenience of canned. Look for reduced-sodium brands, or drain and rinse your beans before eating.

Jarred spaghetti sauce: The process of cooking actually improves the quality of the antioxidant carotenoids that give tomatoes their color, making jarred sauce a healthful choice. Weaver points out that such sauces usually are seasoned with herbs, which add vitamins and minerals such as potassium.

Oatmeal: Steel-cut or simply rolled, processed oats are excellent sources of dietary fiber and can help lower your cholesterol.

Canned salmon: We’re all supposed to be eating more fish — at least two four-ounce servings a week, according to federal dietary guidelines — and fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna are tops because of the omega-3 fatty acids they contain. But buying fresh fish can get expensive. Canned varieties provide the same nutrition.

Peanut butter: Another great source of protein and heart-healthy fats, this tasty, versatile spread is best when made simply with finely ground peanuts.

Frozen vegetables: Vegetables harvested at their peak and immediately frozen retain all their nutritional value, allowing us to enjoy vegetables’ benefits year round. They’re often less expensive than fresh produce, too.

More: For nutrition news, visit the Checkup blog , follow @jhuget on Twitter and subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter.

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