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Not All Processed Foods Are Created Equal

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With the return to school, many families and students are looking for quick, easy meal and snack ideas to get them through their busy days. A lot of people will resort to processed foods to help them along, and as a dietitian, I fully support this decision.

Wait! Aren't I supposed to be the champion of whole foods? The trumpeter of processed-food evil? The promoter of home cooking? The voice of nutrition reason? Yes, I am. But I'm also a mom, I'm also realistic, and I also know that most people can't and shouldn't cut out all processed foods.

Let's get one thing straight right away. There is processed, and then there's ultra-processed. Processed food is tuna, it's hummus, it's milk, peanut butter, canned beans, and frozen vegetables. Ultra-processed is processed cheese, it's sugary cereal, it's TV dinners and canned ravioli and pepperoni sticks. Are you seeing the difference yet?

Processing is essentially taking a whole food and changing it in some way from its original form. This change can be pasteurization, or grinding nuts to make nut butter. Ultra-processing is when a food is manipulated and a bunch of ingredients -- mostly preservatives, flavorings, and colors are added to it so that it no longer resembles its original form at all.

The further you refine a food -- that is, taking it further and further away from its whole form and adding lots of unnecessary ingredients -- the less nutritious it's going to be. I'm sure there are some exceptions to this rule but I can't think of any right now.

There are some people who make a lot of their own food -- their own ketchup, and chicken fingers, yogurt, hummus, and they do things like rehydrate dried beans and peas. I don't have the time or the motivation to do that. I bought my kids' baby food, too. See? It's okay to admit that you can't do it all. Plus, I like the taste of Heinz ketchup.

Here are some prime examples of processed foods that I always have in my house, and that I recommend to family, friends, and clients:

Frozen fruit
Fruit that is frozen basically 'puts the pause on fresh'. You know that any fruit tastes better the longer it's allowed to ripen on the vine, tree, or bush. Raspberries are the prime example here -- any fresh raspberries you buy at the store are picked 10 days prior to peak ripeness in order to make it to you in one beautiful piece. Frozen raspberries are picked when they're at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen, with nothing added. This is called processing, but is it anything to be afraid of? No.

Fresh fruit is great, but frozen fruit is just as versatile.

Canned beans
Call me lazy, but I don't have the motivation or time to soak beans overnight when I want to make them right. This. Second. While I do preach preparedness in nutrition, sometimes I get hit by a wild desire for black beans. While the BPA in the cans makes me a bit suspicious, I do spend the extra buck to get the non-BPA cans of chickpeas and black beans. They're quick, nutritious, and delish and a fast rinse gets the salty water off of them.

Chicken broth
Yes. Yes, you can definitely make your own broth in huge batches and freeze it, but I don't. And I use a heck of a lot of broth, so I have boxes of it lined up like sentries in my pantry, just waiting to be used. I use it in couscous, sauces, as the base for soups, in mashed potatoes, for savory oatmeals... you name it. Chicken broth adds a ton of flavor to your food, but the process of making it is long and to store a big batch, you require more storage room in the freezer than I have. I'd rather store precooked whole meals than bags of broth.

I like Whole Foods' brand for its minimal ingredients, and if you compare the ingredient label on Campbell's with 365 Brand (Whole Foods' store brand) you'll see what I mean.
Does homemade have less ingredients? Yup. But I'm not going to feel guilty if I choose store-bought for convenience.

String cheese
The story of string cheese is somewhat of an interesting one. I do recommend it and eat it myself as a convenient snack. It sure feels processed -- more processed than brick cheese at least, but when I researched how it's made, I relaxed a bit.

Turns out, string cheese is created when mozzarella is heated to a high temperature, re-aligning the milk proteins into a line configuration. This new configuration causes the cheese to become stringy.

Five Processed Foods I Wouldn't Buy

Processed cheese
There's a reason why when I refer to this cheese as "plastic cheese," people know what I'm talking about. An edible oil product, it sure melts well in a grilled cheese, but it's not even vaguely reminiscent of real food. Avoid.

Coffee creamer
Again, an edible oil product. Coffee isn't supposed to taste like hazelnut toffee nut anyways, and you don't need the double dose of trans fats with your breakfast drink. Pass.

Sugary breakfast cereals
Breakfast cereals are wickedly processed anyhow, but the sugary ones add insult to injury. Breakfast is such an easy meal to eat quick and healthy, please don't resort to sugary, low fiber crap. And don't be fooled: that "made with whole grains" claim doesn't mean a thing when the other 90% of the food is refined garbage.

Fat free anything
If you follow my blog, you already know how I feel about fat-free foods. It's time to give the 90s back their disgusting fat-free food, and start eating whole, full-fat foods that are actually delicious and satisfying.

Why anyone would buy fat free cottage cheese or salad dressing is beyond me. Are you really enjoying it? I think these foods are less healthy than their whole counterparts, because of all their additives. Eat the real thing, enjoy it, and eat less. Bam.

Margarine
A nightmare of inflammatory highly refined omega-6 fats, I not only never recommend it, I also won't bring it into my house. The butter on your toast isn't why your cholesterol is high -- it's probably your overall junky diet. Here's one change you can make right now -- eat butter, not too much, and enjoy it.

We're all just trying to be efficient with our time, and like I always say -- in nutrition, there is no such thing as perfection. Remember the difference between 'processed' and 'ultra-processed', and before you shun a certain food, make sure you know how it's made. It might surprise you!

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