What are processed foods?
Processed foods are foods that that have been purposely changed prior to consumption.This can be in a positive way, for instance adding vitamins and minerals to products to make the food more nutritious, or pre-slicing fruit and vegetables to make them easier to consume.
However, there is a big difference between lightly processed and highly processed food. Highly processed foods are full of extra salt, sugar and fat, as well as an abundance of other chemicals and additives that make the food look good, taste good and improve its shelf life.
There is nothing inherently wrong with processing food. After all, when you cook in your kitchen at home you are processing food. For example, if you bake bread at home then you are combining yeast, flour, water, sugar, oil and salt, which you then process together. So, what is the difference between this sort of processing and that done by food manufacturers?
If you have ever baked at home you will know that things taste lovely when fresh out of the oven, but this freshness does not last long. Within a day or two, your creation is well past its best. On the other hand, a shop-bought product may not be as delicious to start with but will maintain a consistent state for a surprisingly long amount of time. This is not even taking into account its journey time from the factory to the shop. The difference between these foods is in the additional processing by the food manufacturer. This is what makes food highly processed.
How can you avoid processed foods?
Before you buy a ready-meal or cake and biscuits from the supermarket, stop and think about what has gone into the production of that product. Do you ever read the ingredients? How many of the ingredients do you recognise? How many additives with ‘E’ numbers are there? Some processed foods will do you no harm and they will save you a lot of time. However, many people only eat highly processed foods, and consume little that is fresh or lightly processed.
Ask yourself about your diet. Consider why you buy food that is highly processed. Are some of these products really saving you time? How long does it really take to prepare Bolognese sauce from its raw ingredients? Is it really worth buying that jar of pre-prepared pasta sauce? Think about how the food manufacturer has managed to make it so cheaply. What has been left out and what has been added in?
It is also worth considering those snacks and treats that are impossible to prepare in your kitchen at home. How much of these do you really need? Is it really necessary to eat a packet of crisps and a bar of chocolate with lunch every day?
Examples of Highly Processed Foods
There are ultra-processed foods that are damaging to our bodies because of their processing, and can pose long-term health risks. Here are some examples of foods to avoid:
- Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
- Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
- Chocolate bars and sweets
- Sodas and sweetened drinks
- Ready-made meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets
- Instant noodles and soups
- Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
- Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils and fats
It may be worth cutting down on these and only buying them as treats every now and again until more is known about their health risks.
Ultra-processed foods might be cheap and appealing if you are on a tight budget, but for you and your family’s health it might be better to shop craftily for fresh ingredients and cook healthy cheap meals for yourself at home.
Don’t let time constraints or under-confidence in the kitchen hold you back. Make the time, involve the family, and make mealtimes fun. Choose some simple recipes and build up a few favourites. I urge you to have a go – what’s the worst that can happen?
It is time to take control of your life and to start being aware of what you are putting into your body!