Mention ‘processed foods’ and you probably think of fat- or sugar-laden snacks like Cheezels and Tim Tams. But what about grainy bread or baked beans? HFG lifts the lid on food processing.…
Cooking from scratch is generally the healthiest way to eat because it allows you to control the ingredients you use. Takeaway burgers, low-quality carbs and sugary sweets have understandably come under attack from those who are promoting a healthy eating message.
But the claims of some clean eaters and raw food crusaders who deny the nutritional value of any processed foods should be viewed with caution. After all, our daily bread and milk are processed, but they don’t fall into the same category as frozen pizza. So, what’s the difference?
Food processing for beginners
In its simplest form, the term ‘processed’ can be used for all foods that have been changed in some way. If we were to be really pedantic, even those foods we cook from scratch could be described as processed. Boiling, roasting, frying and baking are all forms of food processing, as are preparations such as chopping, grating, peeling and mashing.
Canning, freezing, drying and pasteurising also count as food processing techniques. The truth is, most of the foods you buy in the supermarket have been processed in some way. Even whole foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains have likely been washed, trimmed, shelled, husked, ground or wrapped before they make their way into your trolley. But those processes don’t necessarily mean a food is unhealthy.
All part of the process
Not all processed foods are bad choices. Some foods need processing to make them safe or suitable for use, such as milk, which is pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while canned produce allows for year-round choice, easy storage and cooking, less waste and lower costs. ‘Processed’ is not the dirty word it’s made out to be — but we also can’t ignore the overwhelming research promoting a diet that’s based primarily on whole foods.
What about sugar, fat and salt?
This is where things start to get a bit tricky. When dietitians refer to processed foods, they’re typically referring to products that have been heavily modified and bear little or no resemblance to their original state. They tend to have a long ingredients list and are high in added salt, sugar and fat. We’re talking here about foods like biscuits, chips, lollies, pastries, frozen pizza, soft drink and ice cream.
These foods are often ready to eat, shelf-stable and loaded with kilojoules. They’re also usually super-sized and heavily marketed — all of which can make them a green light for overeating in an already food-driven environment.
Yet despite what we already know about the health risks of eating too many over-processed foods, on average over one-third of the kilojoules Australians eat every day comes from these processed ‘discretionary’ foods, according to the latest National Nutrition Survey.
Processed foods to add to your trolley
Because of their long shelf life, cereals are a pantry staple for most people in Australia. How healthy they are for you depends on the type you choose.
High-sugar varieties are not recommended, but many favourite brands have been reducing sugar and salt levels over the years. Lower sugar and salt varieties that are fortified with vitamins and minerals are an easy, convenient, high-fibre breakfast or snack.
With the rise of low-carb diets, bread has copped a bad rap, but there’s a big difference between fluffy white bread and dense, grainy loaves. White bread is made from refined grains, which means the outer bran and germ layers of the grain have been stripped away, leaving a loaf that has significantly less fibre than wholegrain bread.
Wholemeal contains all of the components of the wheat grain but it’s milled to a finer texture. Heavy wholegrain loaves, such as soy–linseed or mixed grain, are your most nutritious choice. They’re rich in fibre and heart-healthy fats, while the large pieces of grain and seed slow digestion and give the bread a low-GI rating.
Milk and yoghurt
Most dairy products undergo a process called pasteurisation, where the milk is gently heated to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Raw milk is illegal in Australia and is especially risky for pregnant women, young children and the elderly. Another process, called homogenisation, is also used to give milk its smooth and creamy texture. Yoghurt is made by introducing live bacteria to milk, and sometimes fruit or flavourings are also added.
The health benefits of dairy products far outweigh the minimal processing involved. Milk is your premium source of healthy, bone-strengthening calcium, while yoghurt contains gut-friendly probiotics.
The sealing and high-pressure cooking of foods in cans locks in nutrients, making many of them just as good a choice as fresh — and they all count towards your five daily serves of veg! Just make sure to buy varieties that don’t come with added salt. Cans have a long shelf life and save on energy, as they don’t need to be refrigerated before opening.
These days, even cheeses we typically think of as being processed often contain few additives but plenty of nutrients, such as protein and calcium. Natural cheese is made from four basic ingredients: milk, salt, starter culture and an enzyme.
Processed cheese is made from high-quality natural cheese with added emulsifiers, which stops the fat from separating when heated. The processing also halts the ageing process, so the cheese maintains its flavour, texture and smoothness. The good news is that many cheese manufacturers are committed to reducing the amount of salt that is used to help slow ageing in processed cheese products.
Frozen fruit and vegetables
Also counting towards your two-and-five-a-day, frozen fruit and veg contain loads of nutrients — often more than the fresh produce you’ve kept in the fridge or fruit bowl for a week. As they’re snap-frozen straight after being harvested, they don’t have time to lose valuable nutrients, such as vitamin C or folate.
Frozen fruit and veg also tend to be more affordable, save time, result in no waste and can be super convenient when you’ve run out of fresh vegies.
These are often criticised for being high in fat and salt and low in fibre, but today there are healthier options available. In fact, it’s a lot better for you to have one of the healthier convenience meals when you’re tired or busy than to skip a meal or grab takeaway. But always look for Health Star Ratings on the pack.
If you’re trying to lose weight, ready-made meals can help you get to grips with what a suitable portion size looks like — and therefore reduce the amount you eat.
Microwavable rice and quinoa
These trusty pantry saviours usually have a shelf life of about one year. They are a convenient source of starchy carbs, with plenty of wholegrain varieties now available. As a rule, flavoured varieties tend to contain more additives and can also have varying amounts of salt — often quite a lot — so check the labels.
Canned fish can really help you get your recommended two-to-three servings of fish a week. It’s particularly good for boosting intakes of oily fish such as sardines, salmon and tuna — all of which are rich in heart-friendly omega-3 fats.
Most plain varieties have few other ingredients added except oil. Some have added salt, so again, it always pays to check the labels.
How to choose healthier processed foods
Read the label: A long ingredients list full of words you can’t pronounce is a sign that a food is overly processed. Avoid products with salt or sugar in the first few ingredients on the list.
Shop the food perimeter: The centre of supermarkets is where you’ll find most of the highly processed foods, such as soft drinks, lollies and biscuits.
Raid the freezer: Supermarket freezers have far more than frozen pizza and tubs of ice cream. Look for snap-frozen fruit and vegies that are often more affordable than fresh.
Snack smarter: While it’s convenient to grab a chocolate bar or bag of salty crackers, it’s just as simple to snack on a handful of nuts, a tub of yoghurt or a refreshing piece of fruit.
Watch the claims: Front-of-pack claims tell only part of the story. For the full story, read the nutrition information panel and the ingredients list. Get more information on label reading here.
Your food processing report card
From A+ to F for fail, where do your favourite foods rate?
Whole, unprocessed foods… whole fruits and vegetables, whole nuts and seeds
Minimally processed foods close to their natural state… oats, nut butters, extra-virgin olive oil, canned legumes, milk
Semi-processed foods… white pasta, breakfast cereals, canned tuna, cheese, white bread
Ultra-processed foods that are high in salt, fat and sugar.…chocolate bars, potato chips, biscuits
Ultra-processed foods with a lengthy list of artificial additives and ingredients you don’t recognise… soft drinks, confectionary, bacon, meat pies