Breaking Down Processed Foods

Years and years ago, food came straight from the ground or from the branch and went directly to the table. That sort of freshness is a little harder to come by today, but not impossible. Farmers markets and roadside stands offer fresh produce, and a lucky few of us have time to cultivate gardens that produce the fruits or vegetables we feed our families.

Aside from these unique scenarios, however, most of our pantry shelves are probably lined with foods that have been processed in some way. What is a processed food? Almost everything that you buy in the grocery store falls into this category. But which processing or additives are necessary, and which should you be careful to avoid?

Choosing Processed Foods

Living a healthy lifestyle means eating nutritious, low-calorie foods. Limiting processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition makes your RealAge younger.

However, eliminating processed foods altogether from your diet is not practical or even desirable in some cases. In some instances, processing can be a good thing. Cooking is a prime example of beneficial processing, because it makes food more digestible. Adding extra vitamins and minerals to foods such as orange juice or cereal may help you fill nutrition gaps in your diet. And certain processing practices help prevent food from spoiling or from being decimated by pests and may even help preserve the food's nutritional value. For example, vegetables that are "fresh frozen" may have a higher nutritional value than vegetables that are picked too early and spend weeks en route to the market. And wheat that has been processed into flour makes the food more versatile, accessible, and edible.

But oftentimes, choosing foods that have been only minimally processed is your best bet for optimizing nutrition. Highly processed foods may have less nutritional value or may contain unnecessary or nutritionally void ingredients. For example:

  • All flour is processed, but highly processed or refined white flour is likely to contain much less fiber and minerals such as magnesium than lightly processed whole-wheat flour.
  • Juices that have been processed with added sugar are higher in calories and typically less nutritious than fresh-squeezed juices.
  • Berry pies or jams that have artificial colors added may have a vibrant hue, but artificial coloring doesn't add any nutritional value to the product. In fact, some artificial colors have been taken off the market due to health concerns associated with them.

So educating yourself about the different food additives and their uses can help you decide which ones seem appropriate and necessary for you and your lifestyle.

The Useful Side of Processed Food

There are six basic reasons food is processed, and some of them are very helpful:

  1. To improve the flavor or color
  2. To balance the acidity or alkalinity
  3. To provide leavening so flour products, such as cakes and bread, rise
  4. To preserve freshness, improve taste, and prevent spoiling
  5. To maintain or improve the nutritional value
  6. To maintain the consistency of a product's taste and texture

Which ingredients do what in your favorite processed foods? Take a look at the labeling of a processed food item and you are likely to find any number of impossible-to-pronounce additives with purposes that are mysterious.

Common Additives and Their Uses

  • Humectants: Used to prevent dried fruit from drying out
  • Potassium sulfate: Used in beer as an anticaking agent
  • Emulsifier: Used in mayonnaise and peanut butter to keep oils dispersed
  • Carrageenan: Used to prevent the formation of ice crystals in ice cream
  • Xanthan gum: Used in low-oil dressing to maintain good consistency
  • Algin: Used to add creaminess and thickness to puddings and ice cream
  • Phosphoric acid: Used to sharpen flavor in cola drinks
  • Soy lecithin: Used to keep chocolate and cocoa butter in a candy bar from separating

Additives and Safety

Once you've got the basics down in terms of the purposes of different food additives and which ones perform which functions, also consider any special health considerations you may have when it comes to processed food additives.

All food additives currently used by processed food manufacturers must comply with rigorous safety standards set by the FDA. And most food additives have a long safety record. However, some additives have come under scrutiny. A small body of research suggests that certain additives could potentially cause harmful side effects in some people.

Sulfites: Sulfur-based additives produce allergic reactions in some people. Although most people don't have a problem with them, some people do experience what the FDA calls "allergic type responses." Sulfites are used mainly to prevent discoloration of light-colored vegetables and fruits, as well as to stop the growth of microorganisms in fermented products such as wine. Scientists say they don't have a full understanding of why certain people react to sulfites, but the FDA does require that foods containing sulfites list them in the ingredients.

Aspartame: This artificial sweetener has been deemed safe by the FDA. However, people with the genetic disease phenylketonuria and pregnant women with hyperphenylalanine (high levels of phenylalanine in the blood) can't tolerate aspartame because they cannot metabolize phenylalanine, a main component of the sweetener.

MSG (monosodium glutamate): The flavor enhancer MSG has been used for years in restaurants—especially in Chinese cuisine. The FDA says MSG is safe for the general population, but people with sensitivities to it should check the ingredients label of any food they're buying.

FD&C Yellow #5: Although a small body of research suggests that this may cause allergic reactions and even hyperactivity in some children, these studies are not supported by clinical evidence. However, check the label if you think you might be sensitive to this additive. Any food coloring has to be listed in the ingredients.

Creative Marketing—Don't Get Fooled

If you are thinking that one way to keep your diet wholesome is to focus on natural additives instead of artificial ones, think again.

Artificial additives are anything that doesn't come from spices, fruit or fruit juices, vegetables, edible yeast, herbs, bark, roots, and other natural sources. They are artificially produced using chemicals or synthetic compounds. Natural flavor, on the other hand, derives its taste-making power from all the aforementioned naturally occurring substances. For example, powder made from beets provides a natural food coloring.

But natural does not always mean safe. For example, some FDA-banned food additives come from plant sources. "Natural" is not a regulated food term. It has no legal meaning and can be misleading. The term might refer to the natural flavoring only.

Also, it's difficult to tell from product packaging which items contain only natural ingredients and which contain synthetic or artificial ingredients.

Planning Around Processed Foods

With so many variables and so many different additives serving different functions in processed foods, it might seem like an overwhelming task to decide which ones you feel are safe or appropriate to include in your own diet. But processed foods are a fairly inevitable fact of life -- without some form of processing, many foods would spoil before consumers could buy them at the market. Eliminating processed foods from your diet is not a practical solution.

Minimizing your intake of unnecessary ingredients or highly processed, nutrition-poor foods is a good idea, however. Opt for fresh, whole foods when available. Choose foods that have been minimally processed or foods that have undergone necessary or valuable processing, improving the nutritional status of the food or preserving it long enough so that you can benefit from it.

With this approach, you can minimize the potential negative aspects of certain processed foods while optimizing your intake of essential nutrients.

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