We tend to think of them as bad, like most high-fat, high-calorie snack foods or even those prepackaged meals you fix in a skillet, but it turns out that some of these foods are not bad for your health at all. For example, milk would be considered a processed food because it's pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating. Some people prefer raw milk, but it can lead to lead to food-borne illness, so most of us are happy to consume the healthy processed milk we find in our grocery stores.
Freezing vegetables preserves most vitamins and minerals and makes them convenient to store, cook and eat all year around. Fruit and vegetable juice is also an example of a healthy processed food -- usually. In fact, some orange juice is fortified with calcium to make it even more nutritious. Oatmeal, unbreaded frozen fish fillets, canned salmon, frozen berries and 100-percent whole grain bread are also examples of processed foods that are good for you.
Sure, there are a lot of processed foods that aren't good for you. Many of these bad ones are made with trans-fats, saturated fats, and large amounts of sodium and sugar. These processed foods should be avoided, or at least eaten sparingly.
Processed foods that may be bad for your diet:
- Canned foods with large amounts of sodium or fat.
- Pasta meals made with refined white flour instead of whole grains.
- Packaged high-calorie snack foods such as chips and candies.
- Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners that are high in sodium.
- Packaged cakes and cookies.
- Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat and sodium.
- Sugary breakfast cereals.
- Processed meats.
Breakfast cereal can be good for you if it's made with 100-percent whole grain and fortified with additional nutrients, but many breakfast cereals are low in fiber and contain too much sugar. Read the nutrition label on the package, it will help you decide if the breakfast cereal is good or not.
Be sure to look for products that are made with more whole grains, less sodium and have fewer calories. They should also be low in saturated fat and free of trans-fats (be sure to read the label, sometimes foods that claim to be trans-fat free still contain partially hydrogenated oils). Make sure you pay attention to serving size, too, and balance out the processed foods with more fresh foods. If you choose a convenient meal in a skillet, add a garden salad, fresh vegetables, and some whole grain bread to make the meal healthier. You can also the nutritional value of ramen noodles by adding fresh vegetables.
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Larsson SC, Orsini N, Wolk A. "Processed meat consumption and stomach cancer risk: a meta-analysis." J Natl Cancer Inst. 2006 Aug 2;98(15):1078-87.