“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.