‘Processed’ ready meals are much-maligned and avoided by dieters
Healthy eating advice often advocates cutting out processed foods
But dietitian Helen Bond said ‘Processed foods can be healthy’
Frozen fruit and veg can be more nutritious than fresh forms, and tinned tomatoes have the edge over fresh – containing higher levels of lycopene
| By Lizzie Parry |
WADING through the reams of healthy eating advice, one message consistently appears – avoid processed food.
The term conjures up images of much-maligned ready meals served up in minutes after a blast in the microwave.
But while the term ‘processed’ is abhorred by dieters the world over, experts have warned not all processed food is bad for you.
When it comes to the different food groups, the definition of ‘processed’ varies widely.
And nutritionists and dietitians are quick to point out that some foods, such as milk, need to be processed to make them safe for us to eat.
Furthermore, studies have shown that in the case of fruit and vegetables, the term ‘fresh’ may not always mean you’re getting the most nutritious produce.
WHAT DOES THE TERM PROCESSED REALLY MEAN?
The definition of ‘processed food’, according to the NHS, concerns any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way.
Dietitian and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, Helen Bond, told MailOnline: ‘Many people wrongly assume that the term processed foods only applies to microwave meals and other ready meals.
‘Yet, according to NHS Choices, “processed food” relates to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way – either for safety reasons – such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria or convenience – such as pressing seeds to make oil.
‘This means that we may all be eating more processed food than we realise.’
Freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurising products all counts as processing.
Bond added: ‘It’s important to remember that the term “processed” applies to a very broad range of foods, many of which can be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
‘Indeed, most shop-bought foods will have been processed in some way and therefore are considered processed foods.’
She said common examples include:
- breakfast cereals
- tinned vegetables and pulses
- savoury snacks, such as crisps
- meat products, such as bacon, ham, sausages, salami, pastrami and corned beef
- convenience foods such as microwave meals or ready meals
- drinks, such as milk or soft drinks
PROCESSED FOODS CAN BE HEALTHY
Despite our ingrained aversion to processed foods, when on a mission to shed pounds, Mrs Bond reassures: ‘Processed foods can be healthy.’
It is a widespread, but incorrect, assumption that when it comes to fruit and vegetables, ‘fresh is always best’.
‘Many of us think that frozen fruits and vegetables must be the poor relative to fresh,’ Mrs Bond told MailOnline.
WHAT DOES ‘FRESH’ ACTUALLY MEAN WHEN IT COMES TO FOOD?
The Food Standards Agency defines ‘fresh’ fruit and vegetables as those that have recently been harvested.
In the case of meat, the term is used to define that which is raw, rather than that which has been chemically preserved.
‘Meat that has been previously frozen, but which is sold thawed would not be considered by the average consumer to be “fresh”,’ the FSA state.
‘The term “fresh” should not be used in these circumstances.’
‘Fresh’ fish is that which has been kept chilled on ice, but not stored in a deep freeze.
But, the reality is that most of the food which reaches supermarket shelves will have been processed in some way.
‘In fact, frozen fruit and veg often contains just as many nutrients as fresh – sometimes even more.’
The reason, she explained, is that as soon as produce is harvested they start to lose water-soluble vitamins B9-folate and vitamin C.
‘The longer it takes for them to reach our kitchen table, the more chance vitamins will be lost, as they are nutrients that are easily damaged by sunlight, heat and storage,’ Mrs Bond said.
‘As most frozen fruit and veg are processed on the day they’re picked, vitamins have less time to be destroyed – and the process helps to preserve nutrients.
‘For example, a portion of raw ultra fresh peas (70g) have 17mg vitamin C and 43 mcg folate – assuming that they haven’t been in storage for days or weeks at the supermarket or at home.
‘Meanwhile frozen peas have just a little less at 15mg vitamin C and 35mcg folate.’
Another good example of where processed foods triumph over their fresh counterparts, is where they have been tinned.
The process means it is more convenient to store the items, and they last longer, generate less food waste and are a cheaper alternative than fresh.
Mrs Bond said: ‘Tinned tomatoes, actually have the edge over fresh tomatoes nutritionally – they are actually a better source of the plant compound lycopene than fresh.
‘Lycopene is thought to offer protection against certain types of cancer especially prostate cancer and heart disease.
‘They offer more of this vital nutrient, because the canning process helps to break down some of the tough cell walls, releasing the lycopene, which makes it easier to be absorbed.
‘A great and cheap way to boost your five a day.’
BUT BEWARE THE ADDED SUGAR AND SALT
While recognising the benefit some processed foods can bring to your diet, Mrs Bond warned it is important to exercise a little caution.
Processed food by its very nature often means higher levels of added sugar, salt and fat.
The trick, Mrs Bond, said, is to always read the ingredients label.
‘It is important to be mindful that anything that’s been processed may contain added salt and sugar,’ Mrs Bond told MailOnline.
‘So, it is worth scrutinising the ingredients list and nutritional information on a packet, to check the levels, so you are aware of what you are eating.’
It is the high levels of these added ingredients that can tip processed foods from the healthy end of the dieting scale, to the unhealthy end of the spectrum.
Salt, sugar and fat are typically added to processed food to enhance their flavour, making them more appealing to the customer.
In addition, the addition of salt, sugar and fat can help prolong shelf life, and in some cases it contributes to a food’s structure, for example salt in bread and sugar in cakes.
Mrs Bond warned: ‘This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts for these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating.
‘These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.’
AND WATCH OUT FOR PROCESSED MEATS
As well as watching for the high levels of additives such as sugar and salt in processed foods, Mrs Bond said it is important to ration the amount of processed meat in your diet.
A diet high in red and processed meat – where a person eats more than 90g a day – has been linked to cancers of the colon or rectum – bowel cancer.
She said: ‘It is not exactly known why there’s a link between bowel cancer and processed meat but there are a number of compounds in processed meat that have been implicated, including N-Nitroso compounds.’
Processed meat is defined as any meat that has been preserved by smoking, air-drying, curing, marinating salting or adding preservatives.
This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami, pastrami, pâtés and corned beef.
The Department of Health recommends that we do not eat more than 70g a day of red and processed meat a day to cut down our risk – this is equivalent to two grilled rashers of bacon or two thin slices of ham.
However, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends that processed meat should be avoided altogether.
Culled form Dailymailonline
— Jul 13, 2015 @ 01:00 GMT