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Balance Diet Centre: Is Processed Food Really The Enemy?
Balance Diet Centre: Is Processed Food Really The Enemy?

With the rise of ‘clean eating’, the narrative around ‘processed foods’ has become one of fear and avoidance. This is due to the fact that we are constantly bombarded with information telling us that processed food causes cancer, chronic disease and weight gain. However, whilst there are elements of truth in this message, the reality is not so black and white. 

Minimally Processed Food

First of all, ‘processed foods’ fall on a broad spectrum, ranging from minimally processed, to ultra-processed; quite simply, processed foods are any food which is altered from its original state. This can be as simple as freezing, grinding, drying and chopping or more complex processes such as pasteurisation and hydrogenation. What is often overlooked is that processing food products can often serve an important purpose with regards to keeping food fresh (think frozen fruit and veg), ensuring food safety (think milk pasteurisation), adding valuable nutrients (think vitamin/mineral fortification) and improving convenience (think canned legumes and chopped salads). This doesn’t necessarily mean these foods are any less ‘healthy’. In fact, many of these products are staples of a balanced and nutrient dense diet, including items such as yogurt, tofu, olive oil, tuna and many more. Removing these foods in the name of ‘clean eating’ is neither health promoting nor realistic. 

Ultra-Processed Food

Now let’s look at those foods which fall towards to opposite end of the spectrum (heavily or ultra-processed). These include products that are made primarily from the extracted components of foods and include multiple ingredients. This may sound scary, but many familiar/everyday food products fall into this category, including breakfast cereals, muesli bars, ready-made pasta sauces and flavoured yogurts. These foods often have additives such as preservatives, thickeners and non-sugar sweeteners, with names we don’t always understand. So, does this inherently make these foods ‘unhealthy’? The answer again is no. Whilst research does suggest that a diet high in ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity and poorer health outcomes, this is driven by the tendency of these foods being energy dense and high in saturated fat, sugar and salt. However, with some savvy shopping and the right information, it is absolutely possible to eat well regardless of processing levels. Key nutrient indicators to look out for include; 

  • Saturated fat: aim for less than 2g per 100g
  • Trans fat: aim for less than 1g per 100g
  • Sugars: aim for less than 10g per 100g 
  • Sodium: aim for less than 400mg per 100g 

Reading the ingredients panel can also help you look out for ‘hidden’ salt, sugar and fats. 

Sugars

Sugars may often be listed in different forms, such as, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate. Ingredients are generally listed by weight, so try to limit consumption of products which have sugar listed in the first three ingredients. Surprising hidden sources of added sugar include products such as salad dressings, marinades and sauces. Luckily, many of these can be made easily at home with minimal ingredients (e.g. olive oil and lemon juice as salad dressing). 

Sodium

Sodium (or salt) is another common additive to improve the taste and prolong the life of packaged products. This may appear on the ingredients list as salt, sodium, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Reducing salt intake is particularly important for individuals with high blood pressure or kidney disease, so we recommend sticking to <400mg per 100g. Similar to sugar, sodium can often slip into our diets without us realising in items such as canned foods (e.g. beans/chickpeas), baked goods, spreads and sauces. However, there are plenty of reduced salt alternatives out there once you start looking!

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is also important to consider when purchasing processed foods as it is often used to improve the palatability and texture of foods. Saturated fat comes in many forms, particularly animal based products (e.g. cream, butter, animal fat), palm oil and coconut oil. These are often added to foods such as baked goods, fried foods, chocolate and processed meats. Limiting saturated fat to <2g per 100g is recommended to reduce risk of high cholesterol or heart disease. 

So Can I Eat Processed Food?

In summary, the majority of foods available in our supermarkets are processed to some degree. Many of these products are staple components of a balanced diet and should not be eliminated for the sake of ‘clean eating’. However, being informed and conscious when shopping and reading labels will allow you to be selective about which products you purchase and avoid unnecessary added sugars, sodium and unhealthy fats to better support your health.