It has become the norm to instantly associate the word ‘processed’ with junk when it comes to food choices. When you think about it though, it’s not always the processing that’s the problem. A simple definition of processed is “a series of operations on something to change or preserve it”.
When we chop an onion or chop and freeze bananas for our smoothies, we are doing that. How many of us use a food “processor” to help us make a range of ingredients into something magical? In most cases, it’s what gets added in these processes that can turn good food into bad.
So, are there some processed foods we can feel okay about using occasionally?
Here, we review 10 that in principle feel like they shouldn’t be too bad for us at least for when we can’t get or run out of the fresh equivalents:
1. Packed Tomatoes & Tomato Puree
Tomatoes contain lycopene, which studies have shown can help prevent a number of cancers. Unlike most other micronutrients, lycopene is more easily absorbed when heated or processed. As a staple for anything from soups to sauces, these should definitely have a welcome place in the cupboard.
2. Frozen Fruit and Vegetables
Whilst fresh, locally sourced produce is the best choice, when it’s not readily available, frozen equivalents without additives are actually not too bad a choice. In most cases the freezing takes place soon after harvest meaning nutrients can be frozen in and not left able to deteriorate in transit. Some nutrients may be lost however in the cooking process, as raw consumption of thawed frozen goods is not recommended.
3. Canned Beans and Pulses
Whilst canned goods are not something we should use too often due to the plastic/BPA coatings inside the cans and possible absorption of leakage from the aluminium, they can be an okay emergency solution. Beans are such a good source of so many nutrients, but can take a long time to prepare from scratch. The canned option can be just as nutritious and will often be the difference between having them or not (and having them is definitely worth it!). You also need to watch for its sodium content, so go for no added salt varieties where possible and rinse well.
4. Canned or Frozen Fish
As with beans above, cans should not be the main source of our food but keeping a steady supply of fresh fish is not always easy to do and can be a smelly undertaking! Canned Tuna, Salmon, Mackerel and Kippers are a great store cupboard back up that can be the difference between having fish and all its goodness in your diet or not.
5. Nut Butters
Nut butter is easy to make at home if you have a hardcore food processor, which means of course that it’s processed! Shop bought equivalents are a great standby but just check and make sure that there are no unnecessary ingredients such as sugar, salt, oil and of course preservatives and other additives.
6. Fortified Yoghurt
Research has shown that many of us are not getting enough vitamin D. This can be particularly important for breastfeeding mothers. Whilst dairy products are a good source, if unfortified, the levels can be insufficient. If other additives and sugars are minimal, it’s worth looking for a fortified choice.
Packaged cereals get a bad rap because some varieties are more like a bag of sweets or a dessert than a bowl of nature’s goodies. It’s not too hard to work out which ones they are and they should definitely be avoided. Certain mueslis however can deliver a good shot of nutrients, just always check the ingredients list for all the usual suspects - salt, sugar, preservatives and other additives.
8. Dried Fruit
Things like raisins, dried apricots and dried goji berries are great to have on hand for adding to oatmeal, salads and baking. They provide a shot of sweetness whilst delivering valuable fibre to your meal, helping digestion and gut health. Dried fruit should be eaten in moderation and if eating as a snack, it’s a good idea to combine with some nuts as the fat content will help to reduce a sharp rise in your blood sugar levels.
9. Shop Bought Kefir Products
Kefir goes through a process of fermentation that takes approximately 24 hours, over which time micro-organisms in the kefir grains multiply. The result of this process is an excellent source of calcium, protein and B vitamins, along with around 30 different microbiotics making it a potent source of probiotics; great for gut health and digestion. A green light for Kefir.
10. Ready Made Hummus and Dips
Hummus generally is a pretty good food choice as it is likely to keep you feeling full for longer than most other snacks and is high in protein making it great for vegetarians. It’s very simple to make your own, although it still requires a fair amount of ingredient prep (and of course processing!). Shop bought equivalents of hummus and other dips like tzatziki and taramasalata can still be good choices, although they can be considerably higher in calories than homemade, so check labels for fat content and of course, other additives.
And so, whilst fresh is best in nearly all situations, there are times when this is simply not possible and we need some reserve foods in a protected, preserved state. Indeed, in many instances, preservation processes came about in times of austerity where their absence may have meant the absence of the food altogether (or the presence of disease).
For these foods, if the processed choice is having them or not, then having them can only be a good thing. And in most cases, worry more about what has been added than what has been done. After all, isn’t life itself a bit of a process?