In recent years, there has been a growing interest in developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Part of the focus on healthy living is how people should practice ‘clean eating’ if they want to stay healthy. Whole foods like grains, beans, and vegetables are sought after by the health community as these are considered unprocessed foods that are free from any additives and artificial substances. On the other end of the spectrum, processed foods have been shunned and cast aside thanks to their increasingly bad reputation.
Many believe processed foods are loaded with excess chemicals to help preserve and extend their shelf life, and as such, they cannot possibly be a part of a healthy diet. While that may be the case for most processed foods, not all of them deserve to be dismissed, and some of them can even provide the same benefits as fresh foods.
Sceptical? Read on and you’ll understand why.
What Are Processed Foods?
Before we get to the meat of the matter, it is important to understand exactly what processed foods are.
By definition, any food that has been altered from its natural state in any way is considered processed food. These alterations are made for either safety or convenience reasons. For example, the milk you buy from supermarkets is considered processed as it has been filtered and pasteurized, but it is safer for consumption than drinking raw unpasteurized milk which contains can harmful micro-organisms that pose health risks to you.
There is a spectrum to classify types of food. On one end, you have the completely unprocessed whole foods. On the other end, you have the highly-processed foods like candy, potato chips, and microwave-ready meals. These tend to have many added ingredients like artificial sweeteners, oils, food colouring, and preservatives to extend shelf life. As you might have guessed, these are the processed foods that cause the bad rap — the unhealthy ones that can make us fat and lead to obesity, increasing our risk of many chronic illnesses.
However, in between these two ends of the spectrum lie the minimally and lightly-processed foods. These can range from vegetables that were cut and packaged to make preparation more convenient, to foods that were processed at their freshest peak so as to retain as much of the nutritional qualities as possible — like canned vegetables and frozen fruits. These are the ones that can likely be part of a balanced and healthy diet, as we’ll discuss below.
What To Choose
Now that you understand there are different types of processed foods, you need to know how to identify and choose the ones that can be beneficial to your health. These tips are especially important if you’re trying to lose excess fat and reach a healthy weight, or if you just want to have a healthier diet without sacrificing the conveniences most processed foods offer.
Read The Labels
One of the best ways to know what is in processed foods is to read the labels. Almost all packaged foods come with a little table list of ingredients and contain all the information you need to know what was used to make that food. When you’re looking at the Nutritional Facts table, you’ll want to avoid products that contain high amounts of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. These are usually high in calories and can make you gain weight, and all the excess salt, sugar, and fats can increase your risk of developing diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In Singapore, you can also look for the Healthier Choice Symbol on the packaging — this is an indication by the Health Promotion Board that these foods are healthier options with lower fat, sodium, and sugar levels, and may even be higher in calcium and fibre.
Fresh Is Not Always Best
When choosing between processed foods and fresh produce, do not be so quick to dismiss the processed ones. As we briefly mentioned above, some foods are processed at their freshest state to preserve and retain as much of the beneficial nutrients as possible. These include frozen fruits and vegetables, which can be just as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables, with the added convenience of easy preparation to save time. Of course, that does not mean all processed fruits and vegetables are good for you — for example, canned fruits sold in tins usually contain syrups loaded with artificial sugars so they’re not good for you, whereas frozen fruit is simply kept in sub-zero temperatures after harvesting so they are fresh when thawed. Both are processed, but one is still healthier than the other.
Make Better Choices When Eating Out
This might be unorthodox, but if you’re really trying hard to cut out processed foods completely, you can extend that to when you’re eating out. Pick restaurants or stalls where the food is prepared only after ordering, or ask if there are healthier options available. Simple switches like asking for less oil, changing highly-processed white rice to lightly-processed brown rice, and even requesting for gravy and sauces to be packed separately so you yourself can add as much or as little as you please — these little things add up to make your meals slightly healthier.