Is all processed food unhealthy?
Should we be ditching convenience fare completely? Don’t be put off by well-intentioned advice - add these nutritional processed foods to your shopping list.
It’s sad that the most basic, instinctive, joyful act - eating - can often be a source of anxiety and guilt. We fret about whether we’re eating organically, mindfully, properly. Sprout mung beans for days and you’re an effigy of wellness; bung a tin of baked beans in the microwave and well, slightly less so. Whether we like it or not, we’re surrounded by messages created by entire industries fighting our fear of eating the ‘wrong’ food.
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Processed foods sit high on this hierarchy of ‘unholy’ fare. We know its nutritional value is less than that of whole foods - those which haven’t been canned, cooked, frozen, dehydrated, milled, or had salt and sugar added. But not all processed foods are unhealthy, or should be avoided. The trick is to bypass marketing messages and actually read the ingredients. Look out for these next time you’re in the supermarket:
Healthy processed foods
Frozen fruit and vegetables. Fresh isn’t always best. In fact, studies have shown zero nutritional differences between ice-cold and fresh fare. That’s because freezer bags of fruit and vegetables are picked and frozen at their nutritional prime.
Canned beans. Black, white, red… whatever you plump for, beans play an important role in a healthy diet. Even if they come in a can, they’re still a brilliant source of ready-to-eat protein. Toss them into garden salads, simmer them in stews or wrap them up in enchiladas. Opt for low-salt varieties to keep them as nutritionally beneficial as possible.
Tinned fish. Tuna, salmon, sardines and other canned fish are cupboard essentials. Flake onto salads, mix into pasta or plonk on top of a baked potato - these canned ocean wonders are ideal portable sources of protein, omega-3 and calcium.
Nut butters. Nuts made into butters all come with their own properties and benefits. Almonds are packed with magnesium and vitamin B2 (excellent for hair and nails), while peanuts are the perfect post-workout snack (thanks to all that protein). Avoid nut butters containing palm oil and go for coconut oil options instead.
Fortified cereals. The process of ‘fortifying’ cereals - adding vitamins and minerals to food which weren’t there originally - began in the 1920s to combat nutritional deficiencies. While wholegrain cereals are best, a bowl of fortified cereal is a convenient way to get the recommended amount of nutrients in your system. Do investigate the sugar content in the list of ingredients before you buy.
Yoghurt. It may come in a tub, but yoghurt can be a great way to sneak in a little protein, vitamin B12, calcium and often probiotics. What you need to look out for is those with more than 12g of sugar per serving. Go Greek and you can add our own sweetness in the form of fresh fruit.
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Is all processed food unhealthy?
Eating nutritious food most of the time but saving room for indulgences or convenience food (i.e. moderation) can be truly beneficial. Research shows that planning and allowing small splurges (or as scientists call them, hedonic deviations) can help you maintain motivation to achieve your goals.
Whether it’s a microwave lasagne when you don’t have time to cook, a frozen pizza (with extra cheese) at a friend’s party, or a packet of chocolate biscuits on a Sunday afternoon, processed food is fine in small doses. Balancing your social, cognitive and emotional health is what equates to a healthy lifestyle - and if that involves the odd Saturday night takeaway with friends, then it will have very little impact physically.