What comes to mind when you think of the term “processed foods”? Consumer confidence in defining this colloquial term varies, according to IFIC’s recent consumer survey, “Perceptions on Processed.” The survey found that nearly half of respondents selected the answer “I can easily explain what processed foods are and identify examples of processed foods.” But what are those explanations? For some, “processed” equates solely to “low in nutrients,” whereas others have a more wholistic definition, acknowledging that processing occurs on a spectrum and that many of the foods we eat are processed on some level.
If you’re wondering why these varying definitions matter, consider that how we think about processed foods is the first step in directing how we can appropriately incorporate them into our eating patterns. For example, our survey found that when respondents were asked to choose the positive aspects of processed foods from a list of attributes, the most popular options were “convenience” (with 45% saying so), “affordability” (39%), and “shelf-life” (38%).
On the other hand, when provided with the same list of attributes but asked to choose which aspects respondents perceived as negative, the most selected options were “impact on health” (44%), “quality of ingredients” (33%), and “nutrition” (31%). Are these fair assessments on the part of consumers? Let’s review how processed foods may (or may not) play a helpful role in an eating pattern that is nutritious overall.
Some processed and packaged foods are non-perishable or quick to prepare while still featuring minimal processing, so you can keep your kitchen stocked with fast and healthy options and spend less time prepping dinner. Some great grocery-list suggestions include frozen fruits and vegetables, canned beans, legumes, and soups (be sure to check the Nutrition Facts Label for low-sodium options), fortified cereal and granola bars, microwavable brown rice, popcorn, canned or pouched tuna, whole grain pasta, yogurt cups or tubes, and cheese sticks.
Consider this example: A mom of three young children wants to feed her family nutritious foods, but is often so preoccupied with taking care of their other needs in the early evening that it’s hard to spend an hour making dinner or running out to pick up last-minute, fresh ingredients. A microwaveable package of brown rice paired with frozen vegetables and canned chicken can save time while providing a swathe of healthy nutrients to her family.
Think about medical professionals who tend to many patients during long shifts and don’t always have the ability take a break for the perfectly crafted meal. Could a pre-made smoothie with a beef stick, nuts, or a nutrition bar help manage hunger until they get a proper chance to sit down and eat a full meal? Seems reasonable!
Another real-life example? A college student could eat breakfast on the way to class with a portable yogurt, microwaveable oatmeal cup, or a high-protein nutrition bar. If time permits, adding some canned or frozen fruit can make for a quick, balanced breakfast.
Many packaged foods are easy to “grab and go” and require very little preparation. Products that come in single-serving sizes make great snacks because they’re easy to pack and can help you with proper portion control. Think single-serving packages of meat jerky, hummus, guacamole, trail mix, or pretzels.
Did you know that processed foods contribute to economic food security by assuring that sufficient food is available for people of all income levels? As we’ll see in the next section, these foods can contribute to nutrition security as well. Again, consider that processed foods occur on a spectrum and ideally should be paired with fresh or minimally processed choices to create healthy meals and eating patterns. For example, canned, frozen, or packaged proteins can be paired with fresh vegetables to cut down on price and waste while still providing important nutrients for persons and families with limited budgets.
How can processed foods offer nutritional benefits? Mainly through fortification. Fortification of foods has taken place in the U.S. since the early 20th century, when healthcare providers noted that nutritional deficiencies caused chronic health problems. Starting in the 1920s, iodine was added to salt as a preventative measure against goiter. In the 1930s and 1940s, milk was fortified with vitamin D and calcium, and thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and iron were added to flour.
Additionally, in the late 1990s, folic acid was added to various foods to prevent neural tube defects in embryos. Recent packaged foods have been fortified with fiber, probiotics, and antioxidants, all of which have been shown to support health.
Still, we would be remiss to ignore the fact that some processed foods contain very high amounts of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. How do we make sense of those? It’s well understood that a diet too high in foods that are lower in nutrients but higher in fat, sugar, and sodium is not beneficial for long-term health. And while it’s certainly not recommended that we make an everyday habit of eating significant quantities of these kinds of foods, it’s also worth noting that different people have different health conditions, preferences, and life goals, so (at the risk of sounding trite) it’s important to figure out what makes sense for your own individual lifestyle.
The Final Goal: Balance
What we recommend is to keep the long view in mind: What we eat over time is more important than any single food we consume. Variety, balance, and moderation are always key tenets to an overall healthy diet.