What processed foods should you avoid?
Plus: Recipes to help you avoid processed foods in your diet.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” - Albert Schweitzer
Friday. A rumor has been floating around Twitter (X?) claiming Salzburg Airport has a counter for people who flew to Austria instead of Australia. Talk about a travel nightmare—you think you are going to The Land Down Under, but instead, you end up in the home country of the Governator. Unfortunately, it turns out this rumor isn’t true. While I’m sure some people end up flying to the wrong country (yikes), it isn’t so common that there is a dedicated counter for it at the airport.
Moving on to something far more common than flying to the wrong country—let’s talk about processed foods. What are they exactly, and should you avoid everything that is processed? Let’s dive in.
Processed Foods: What To Avoid? What Is Okay?
The word “processed” can be a bit confusing when it comes to food. We often hear that we should “minimize processed foods,” but what does that really mean? According to the USDA, “processed” refers to any food that has been altered from its natural state. So, technically, canned black beans and frozen broccoli are processed foods.
But does that mean they’re bad for us? Not necessarily.
Let’s dig a little deeper. When we think of processed foods, we should think beyond simply labeling the as “good” or “bad.” Instead, let’s consider the nutritional value and how easily we might overeat those foods. The NOVA Classification system helps us with this by categorizing foods into four groups based on their level of processing.
Group 1 includes unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, and meats. Group 2 foods are minimally processed but are altered to last longer, like olive oil. Group 3 foods combine ingredients from Groups 1 and 2 and are made up of a few ingredients, like bread and jams. The foods we should really keep an eye on fall under Group 4—ultra-processed foods. These foods have many ingredients, some of which aren’t commonly used in home cooking and usually contain food additives.
So why should we focus on minimizing Group 4 foods? Well, they usually have more carbohydrates and fats but fewer vitamins, minerals, and fiber. While carbs and fats aren’t bad in themselves, the problem lies in how easily we can overeat these types of foods. A study conducted in 2019 found that people ate 500 more calories per day when they were given ultra-processed foods compared to when they were given unprocessed foods.
The reason isn’t necessarily a single ingredient but the combination of elements in these foods that makes them irresistibly tasty, leading us to consume more than we should. I mean, have you ever tried having just one Oreo or just few smal handful of chips?
But what about protein bars and protein powders? These items can be confusing because they often seem healthy but can be highly processed. The key here is to check the ingredients. If a protein bar is made up of whole foods and has minimal additives, it’s probably a better choice than one filled with preservatives and artificial flavors.
The key takeaway? Not all processed foods are created equal. What we really need to watch out for are foods you couldn’t easily make in your kitchen—think big brand chips and certain bakery goods. These are the foods that are most likely to lead us to eat more than we should, not necessarily because of any one ingredient but because the combination of ingredients makes them so palatable.
So the next time you hear the word “processed,” remember it’s not a one-size-fits-all term. Being mindful of the level of processing and its impact on our eating behaviors can go a long way in helping us make healthier choices.
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