Processed = Bad?

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Processed foods have gotten some bad press in recent years, thanks to the urgings of food writers and health professionals to consume fresh, whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. This advice is particularly applicable to people with diabetes — both Type 1 and Type 2 — since processed foods often contain added sugar, sodium, and other ingredients that may affect blood glucose control or otherwise increase the risk of long-term complications. But according to a recent scientific statement by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), a nonprofit research and policy group, processed foods may not be entirely bad. In fact, the group says, they often play an important role in providing desirable nutrients and in ensuring that food is reliably available.

The statement, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, asserts that both processed and fresh foods are “vital parts of the food supply.” Processed foods, according to the statement, help ensure that people get both an adequate amount of food and adequate nutrients. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, processed foods contribute 65% of folate, 64% of iron, 55% of dietary fiber, 48% of calcium, 46% of vitamin B-12, and 43% of potassium found in the typical diet. Processed foods contribute 57% of calories in the typical diet, a number that can be used to evaluate nutrients obtained through these foods (for example, since the percentage of folate obtained through them is greater than 57%, processed foods can be considered an above-average source of folate). Calories, of course, can also be viewed as bad in their own right, since most Americans consume more calories than they need. In the area of other “bad” items, processed foods contribute 75% of added sugar, 57% of sodium, and 52% of saturated fat found in the typical diet.

As noted in a Medscape Medical News article on the ASN statement, “processed foods” is a label that covers four distinct categories: foods processed to preserve freshness, including many canned and frozen foods that are also available in fresh form; foods combined with spices, sweeteners, or preservatives, a very broad category; ready-to-eat foods, such as cereal, yogurt, and boxed or bagged snacks; and prepared foods, such as deli items, frozen meals, and pizzas. In addition, “minimally processed” foods include items such as prewashed or precut fruits and vegetables and ground nuts. Out of all processed food consumed in the United States, 14% is minimally processed, 29% is prepared food from restaurants, and 57% is other processed food. That “other” category is still extremely broad — representing everything from frozen peas to boxed cookies — which suggests that the “processed” label may be too broad to make useful statements about the merits or faults of processed foods.

Do you try to avoid processed foods, or foods that you view as excessively processed? If so, have you noticed any improvement in your health as a result of abandoning these foods, such as loss of excess body weight or improved blood glucose control? Do you find that certain types of processing, such as freezing or canning produce, make it more likely that you’ll include such foods in your diet? If you had the time and money, would you prefer to eat foods prepared with only fresh ingredients, or do you find that you prefer some processed items? Leave a comment below!

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