Packaged foods, also referred to as processed foods, have been getting a bad rap for a while now. It seems every day that there are new fad diets or guidance that encourages us to avoid all processed foods. “Processed” may be the new four-letter word for food, but what is the real role of processed food in our diets, and do we really need to steer clear? The American Society for Nutrition’s statement “Processed Foods: Contribution to Nutrition” addressed this question; the results didn’t jibe with the demonization we’ve heard.
Turns out, packaged foods do play an important role in our food supply. Think about the range of packaged foods–it’s a lot more than just occasional treats. Everything from frozen fruits, to canned vegetables, to cereals goes through packaging. It keeps food fresh, long-lasting, convenient, safe, and offers plenty of benefits that we often don’t even think about.
Processing can even add nutrition; if it weren’t for enrichment and fortification of foods, NHANES found that “large percentages of the population would have had inadequate intakes of vitamins A, C, D, E, thiamin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and iron.”
ASN’s not saying that all packaged foods contain nutritional value, and not all packaged foods are created equal. The authors also flag that processed foods contribute “constituents to limit” like calories, sugar, and sodium.
It may seem easy just to write off “anything with an ingredients label,” as I’ve heard fellow grocery shoppers and op-ed writers evangelize, but folks who make food decisions based on a one-line slogan could be seriously missing out on critical nutrients.