A couple of years ago, I became more aware of how processed food was affecting my health. I was always tired, often felt hungry even after I’ve eaten and I was putting on weight. I started to work with a nutritionist, who pointed out that I was relying on supermarket ready meals a little bit too much. She was right; ever since I started to work for myself, I found I had less and less time to cook properly, and it was just easy to buy ready-made food and stick it in the microwave. She recommended I learn more about food additives and try to eliminate them as much as I can from my diet.
I knew that processed food is not particularly good for you, but I didn’t realise how damaging it can be over a long period of time. It’s not necessarily the food itself, but it’s the extra ingredients that keep the food fresh and healthy-looking.
For example, sausages, burgers, ready meals, cakes and biscuits are typically referred to as processed foods. But processed food is also any food that has been changed before it gets to our shopping basket. This includes even healthy food options, such as milk, cheese or yoghurt.
This makes it even more mind-boggling because just because a food is processed, it doesn’t mean it is a completely unhealthy choice. Many foods need processing to make them safe to eat; for example, dairy products need to be pasteurised.
The problem is that many processed foods contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat, which extends their shelf live. Quite often, manufacturers add unnecessary ingredients to bulk up the volume to make the final product cheaper an include additives to prolong shelf life. This is how natural food like chocolate, ends up being unsuitable for celiacs and vegetarian diets, simply because the manufactures swap the original cocoa butter for vegetable or animal fat and add extra sugar, various e-numbers and flour to make up the volume.
This is why many processed foods are not particularly healthy, especially if they form a significant part of your diet.
But which processed foods are best to avoid?
It’s best to avoid food that has been highly processed and includes various additives and emulsifiers. Foods like crisps, biscuits, frozen ready meals, sausages, instant pot noodles, some breakfast cereals, chocolate snack bars or soft drinks have a long list of additives that meant to improve the flavour of the product.
These additives make the product irresistible to our taste buds, which makes us want more, without actually filling us up. Have you ever ate just one half of the crisp packet? Thought not!
Because we don’t feel full, we eat more, and we eat more of the same stuff because it’s so moreish! It’s a vicious circle, which can be only broken if you fill up with basic non-processed foods. Based on my own experience, it takes a while to get back on track, but you’ll feel so much better for it!
But how to tell if food has been processed?
And how can I tell how much it’s been processed? My rule of thumb is that the longer the list of ingredients including E-numbers, additives, emulsifiers or ingredients I can’t recognise is, the more the food product has been processed.
Some processed foods can be even healthier than fresh ones. For example, frozen vegetables and fruit are usually left to ripen in the fields and then frozen within a few hours from the harvest. This preserves all nutrition and vitamins ready for us to eat. On the other hand, some ‘fresh’ fruit and vegetables have to be picked unripe, because they have such a long journey to the supermarket and they still have to look at their best when they arrive on the shelves. They are also often preserved with vax (e.g. apples or citrus fruit) or special gas (e.g. grapes in punnet boxes).
The health implications of eating processed foods
As I’ve discovered myself, eating instant meals and processed foods can make you put on weight. This is caused by the high presence of sugar and processed fats in food.
The other problem that’s very significant is that many processed foods swap natural sugar for artificial sweeteners to make them cheaper and to be perceived by the general public as ‘sugar-free’ and ‘healthy’. Well, nothing can be further from the truth! Artificial sweeteners are very difficult for us to digest, and they often stay in our body system without being flushed out.
To give you a better idea of what processed food groups to avoid, I’ve put together this handy list for you.
Healthier Processed Foods
- Fortified Milk (for extra vitamin D)
- Olive Oil
- Frozen Vegetables
- Frozen Fruit
- Canned Fruit
- Canned Vegetables
- Canned Chickpeas
- Canned Beans (rinse them with water before using to minimise the intake of sodium in the brine/sauce)
- Tinned Fish (in natural brine or oil)
- Wholemeal Bread (freshly baked in-store, rather than pre-packed)
- Wholemeal Pasta
- Breakfast Snack Bars
- Soft Drinks
- Chocolate Snack Bars
- Cured or Processed Meats (e.g. ham, burgers, bacon, deli meats, hot dogs)
- Savoury Snacks
- Pot Noodles
- Ready-Made Sauces
- Frozen Ready Meals
- Frozen Deep-Fried Foods (e.g. chicken nuggets, breaded fish, chips or fries)
- Instant Coffee Granules
- Pre-packed Cakes
So, can we completely eliminate processed foods from our diets? And is it really necessary?
I think the best way to approach this is to be mindful of what you eat and try to cook as much as you can at home, using fresh produce. This way, you’ll naturally avoid using highly processed foods without even thinking about it. And if you do fancy that packet of crisps, by all means, have it, but don’t have five packs a day, every day!