If you’re following my Small Steps series, you know this month’s task is to manipulate our environments to make healthy food and exercise choices easier and unhealthy choices harder.
This week, I’m honing in on the first suggestion of the task: purge your life of junk foods and stock up on accessible, high quality foods. It seems simple but I understand when one’s in a grocery aisle, rushed and exhausted, studying nutrition labels can be mystifying, if not daunting. It’d be great if we all could make every item from scratch and eat only whole, fresh foods. But, most of us can’t do that. Often, we need to purchase processed foods – it’s a fact of life. Yet, not all processed foods are equal.
What is Processed Food?
Technically, homemade bread is processed food. Even using 100% whole grain flour doesn’t change this. Mixing ingredients and baking it transforms it into something else. There’s nothing unhealthy about this type of processed food. If you’re reading an ingredient list on packaged food and could realistically duplicate that product in your kitchen, it’s probably a good choice.
What should be off-limits is what I call highly processed foods. Highly processed foods are packaged goods made up a (long) list of mostly unrecognizable, industrially-made ingredients you couldn’t possibly duplicate in your kitchen. They’re a poor choice.
In other words, low-processed foods are made up of mostly low-processed or whole ingredients. While highly processed foods are made up of highly processed ingredients. The most common highly processed ingredients in packaged foods are flours, sweeteners and fats.
Low Processed vs Highly Processed Ingredients
Flour: The most common flour used in packaged foods is wheat. Think all purpose flour in your pantry. But, nearly any grain and many legumes (beans) can be made into flour. Enriched wheat flour is stripped down wheat with nutrients added back in. An important component that’s removed in the processing of non-whole flours is fiber, which is why whole grains are better than processed grains.
- Good Choices: Ingredient lists that use the term “100% Whole” for most or all of the grains in the product are good choices. Besides wheat, other good choices in their whole forms are oats, barley, brown rice, triticale, rye, corn and buckwheat. Seeds such as flax, chia and sesame are also healthy ingredients.
- Okay Choices: It’s not the end of the world to have non-whole grains in your food. It should be expected in baked items where a more delicate texture is desired such as cakes, cookies and muffins. These are treats and are fine for an occasional splurge if consumed within proper portions. An item with a mix of whole and non-whole grains, can be an acceptable choice in moderation.
- Poor Choices: If the item isn’t considered dessert food and consists of only non-whole grains, particularly if they’re the main ingredients, pass it by. I also stay away from products that use legume flours such as soy and chickpea. Legume flours are more processed than grain flours. Legumes should be consumed in their whole forms.
Sweeteners: Unlike flours, sweeteners rarely have nutritional value. But, they do serve a purpose in the palatability of foods. Take care to keep added sweeteners to a minimum but I don’t subscribe to the notion they should be eliminated altogether. When comparing two similar food items with added sweeteners, I prefer the item with the most protein and fiber and the least processed sweeteners.
- Lower-Processed Sweeteners: Raw honey, 100% real maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar
- Moderately Processed Sweeteners: Brown sugar, honey, cane/table sugar, raw nectars/syrups
- Highly Processed Sweeteners: High fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, non-raw syrups
Fats: Fats are a necessary macronutrient but not all fats are created equal. There’s growing clinical evidence that saturated fats aren’t as unhealthy for the heart as once believed. Simultaneously, there’s growing clinical evidence that highly-processed plant-based polyunsaturated fats may be harmful. Polyunsaturated fats are found in abundance in highly processed, industrial oils – oils you won’t find at your local grocer. Yet, they’re rampant in processed foods.
- Healthy Saturated & Monounsaturated Fats: Butter from grass-fed cows, extra virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil
- Acceptable Saturated & Monounsaturated Fats: All other dairy butter, coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, avocado oil, canola oil
- Highly Processed/Polyunsaturated Fats: Soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and all hydrogenated oils, no matter their source.
Other considerations: Processed foods can contain other additives such as preservatives to extend shelf life, plant-extracted gums and lecithins as thickeners and emulsifiers, and artificial colors for aesthetics. It’s a matter of personal preference how much weight you give these ingredients when comparing products.
Making the Decision
When deciding which product to get, make note of the grains, sweeteners and fats in it. Anything from the most processed category should get a strike. Select the item with the least amount of strikes. If they’re equal in strikes, select the product with the most protein or fiber. This can be assessed quickly with a simple scan of the nutrition label. For a practical example, see the cracker comparison below.
Now you’re armed with all the information you need to replace your purged junk food with healthier choices. Happy shopping!
Consider these three cracker options:
These graham crackers have mostly non-whole grains, three types of sweeteners and industrial grade oil. Not in the picture is the less than 1g of fiber per serving. Not the best choice.
Whole grain flour and 3g of fiber (not pictured) is a plus. Two types of sweeteners isn’t too bad. Soybean oil is a strike. But the color is extracted from plants, not dyes, and the preservative is added to the packaging as opposed to the food product. All in all, not a bad choice for mass produced crackers.
The best of the bunch with whole grain, small amount of table sugar and palm oil. And it has more than twice the fiber per serving compared to the graham crackers.