Can Processed Foods Be Part of a Healthy Diet

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What is processed food?

Most foods are processed – changed, prepared or packaged – in some way before we eat them. They fall somewhere on a spectrum from minimally processed (like salad mix, bagged dry beans, roasted unsalted nuts or frozen fruits or vegetables) to what some nutrition experts refer to as highly or ultra-processed (like sugary beverages, chips or smoked sausage).

Some processed foods have ingredients added, such as sweeteners, oils, colors and preservatives. Some are fortified to add nutrients such as fiber, calcium or vitamin D. Some are simply prepped for convenience (washed or chopped) or packaged to last longer. Processes such as pasteurizing milk, canning fruits and vegetables, and vacuum packing meats help prevent spoilage and increase food safety. Even foods labeled “natural” or “organic” can be processed.

If you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats. About 70 percent of the sodium in the typical American diet comes from commercially processed and restaurant foods. Manufacturers use sodium to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. 

So what can you do if want to eat healthier?

Choose healthier processed foods.

  • Read food labels. This is the best way to know exactly what’s in a processed food. Choose products without a lot of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. Learn what to look for in the Nutrition Facts label, ingredients list and other package claims.

  • Enjoy frozen and canned produce. Frozen and canned beans, fruits and vegetables are convenient and affordable options that can be just as nutritious as fresh produce. Look for varieties without salty sauces and sugary syrups. Compare the labels and choose items with the lowest amounts of sodium and added sugars.

  • Look for the Heart-Check mark. The American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark will help you find packaged foods that can be part a healthy eating pattern. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification.

  • Make smart choices when ordering out. Choose restaurants where food is cooked to order or there are designated healthier menu options. Ask how food is prepared, which items are made to order in-house vs. prepackaged, and if you can make substitutions. Request sauces, dressings and condiments on the side so you can decide how much is added.

Choose more unprocessed and minimally processed foods.

  • Cook more meals at home. You don’t have to be a master chef to get your cook on! You can find lots of great recipes and brush up on your cooking skills online. Preparing food at home gives you control over what’s added. It can save you money and be a great family bonding time.

  • Make a few simple swaps. Some examples: Make your own simple vinaigrette instead of buying bottled salad dressing. Add fruit to plain oatmeal, cereal and yogurt instead of buying the sweetened or flavored kind. Slice up leftover roasted chicken or make a light tuna salad for sandwiches instead of using processed deli meat.

  • Snack smarter. Think crunchy unsalted nuts and seeds, cut-up veggies, fruits that hit the sweet spot, and easy homemade popcorn. Package these healthier snacks in small containers and they’re just as convenient as that bag of chips!

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