There’s a lot of talk about food in the media. Health experts are warning us of an imminent obesity epidemic, with numbers of Type 2 diabetes increasing rapidly. Food-related illnesses are beginning to put real pressure on the NHS.
One of the foods health experts and celebrity chefs are warning us about includes processed foods. But what is processed food, does it come with real health warnings and are there any processed foods we should be eating?
What is processed food?
When you think about processed food, you most likely think about fast foods and boxed ready meals. But processed food actually includes a wider range of foods, such as whole-wheat bread and chopped apples. This is because there is a spectrum of processed foods, from the slightly refined and processed to heavily processed foods.
The spectrum of processed food looks like this:
Slightly processed foods – includes pre-prepared foods, such as bagged spinach and cut vegetables.
Peak processed foods – includes foods which have been packaged to lock in nutritious and fresh food for later consumption. Examples would include canned beans and frozen fruit.
Processed foods with added ingredients – foods that come with added ingredients for flavour and texture (sweeteners, spices, preservatives). Examples range from salad dressing to cake mixes.
Heavily processed foods – includes foods that have been prepared fully for consumption and which can include any of the above categories on top of that. Example foods include ready-to-eat foods such as granola and pre-made meals like microwaveable meals.
As the above shows, it is hard to avoid processed food, even if you cook all of your meals at home.
What processed foods are OK to eat?
It’s good to understand that certain processes are designed to make the food safer to eat. For example, pressing seeds for oils makes these oils processed, but naturally not harmful to eat.
Furthermore, processed foods with limited processing, such as cut vegetables (chopping them doesn’t remove the vitamins), and limited added preservatives, such as frozen berries and canned tuna (no added sugar, salt), are a safe part of a healthy diet.
Most of these foods are only processed for convenience. If the options are to pay a bit extra for vegetables, which are pre-chopped, or to not eat veggies at all, you definitely are better of buying them. You can also save a lot of money by using voucher codes when shopping for fresh foods.
The health impact of a diet containing processed foods
The health problems of processed food become more apparent if your diet is high in heavily processed foods. More precisely, the problem is the high content of salt, harmful fats and sugar of these products.
This can result in issues such as high blood pressure, increased weight and even increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
The processed foods to avoid
Therefore, you don’t want your diet to consist of heavily processed foods. Whilst the occasional ready-meal or fast food dinner is fine, you should not turn this into a habit.
Try to avoid the heavily processed foods, together with anything that has a high sugar, salt or saturated fat content. The officials NHS guidelines show:
Saturated fat content is high when it’s over 5g per 100g.
Sugar content is high when it’s over 22.5g per 100g.
Salt content is high when it’s over 1.5g per 100.g.
When shopping for foods, keep an eye out for the above numbers. The more you cook your meals from scratch, the healthier they usually are. If you are worried about your weight or diet, check the forums here at talkhealth for additional tips.