Processed foods get a bad rap, something which is partially deserved thanks to the abundance of processed products that are nearly devoid of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The sad thing is that many of these items start out as healthy foods before being stripped of nutrients and pumped with the preservative powers of sugar and salt. But the category of processed foods includes way more items that we may think; it doesn’t just include microwaveable dinners and frozen pizzas and includes many foods that the typical person may not even consider to be processed!
A lot of people assume that, because I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), I must avoid all “unclean” processed foods like the plague. (First of all, foods are not “clean” and “unclean,” but I’ll save that for another post.) In reality, “processed” does not necessarily mean nutrient poor, and I believe that certain processed foods can and should have a place at the table.
Before I continue, let’s take a look at what “processed” actually means in the food world.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has three main levels of processed foods. Minimally processed foods are defined as foods that see little production or processing before reaching the consumer, such as pre-washed bagged salads and sliced watermelon. Processed foods are defined as foods that are modified to add other ingredients (e.g. jarred tomato sauce, salad dressing), preserve nutrients and freshness (e.g. canned beans, frozen vegetables), or to reduce or eliminate the prep time necessary before eating (e.g. yogurt, nut butters). Finally, prepared and ready-to-eat meals are foods packaged to save time and preserve freshness, such as frozen TV dinners and pizzas.
Now, let’s move onto why I believe not all processed foods are “bad.”
We typically think of processed foods as being items low in nutrient density like potato chips, donuts, and soda, but the definitions that I presented above also include more nutritious items that contribute valuable vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to the diet such as yogurt and milk, canned fruit, and pre-chopped vegetables. As an RDN, some people automatically assume that I “eat clean” and demonize anything processed. But what they don’t know is that during my past 2 years in grad school, I relied on processed foods– frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes and beans, non-dairy milk, and nut and seed butters– to provide me with the necessary servings of fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins that my body needed to keep chugging away on school projects and papers. Without pre-prepped produce, my intake of fruits and vegetables likely would have dropped considerably as the countless hours that I spent at work and school left me with limited free time for food prep. Without nuts, soy products, and canned beans, I wouldn’t have eaten enough protein to prevent the stress of grad school from wreaking havoc on my immune system. If all processed foods are so “bad,” then how did I make it through school, work, and grad research, while passing with flying colors?
Furthermore, buying canned and frozen produce helped me to avoid wasting both food and money. During my week, things would come up: assignments would take longer than expected or emergency group project meetings would get scheduled. The time that I had set aside for chopping and preparing fresh produce each week sometimes would get filled with other, more time-sensitive matters. I didn’t want to buy fresh produce only to have it go bad before I was able to prepare it. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables became a diet staple. I would still buy fresh produce, but only in amounts that I was certain I would use each week, and then I would supplement the rest of my normal produce intake with frozen or canned products. These so-called processed products saved me time and money and prevented me from stressing when school and work got in the way of food prep time. For these reasons, these nutrient-dense, processed foods will always have a place at my table.
If you decide to add processed foods to your diet, be smart about it.
When deciding if processed foods are right for you, it all comes down to how you can make more nutritious choices within the constraints of your own schedule. If you have enough time to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables and other unprocessed foods each week, then more power to you! But if you are among the majority of adults whose diets do not meet Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations for fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains, eating processed but nutrient-dense foods like frozen vegetables, canned fruit, unsweetened yogurt, and whole grain bread and pasta can help fill critical nutrition gaps.
Admitting that you eat processed foods may result in odd stares from those who may be misinformed, but it’s time that people get real about nutrition. “Processed” canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can help to fill problematic gaps in the diet, and in fact, frozen produce often even contains more nutrients than fresh since it is frozen at the peak of freshness.
It is time for us to realistically assess how we can meet Dietary Guidelines recommendations in our own lives and become the healthiest versions of ourselves. With their convenience and time-savings, I believe that processed foods are necessary to help get us there.
Looking for a healthy recipe using canned and frozen produce for convenience? Check out my easy Black Bean and Corn Salsa.