In part 1 of this series I examined the definition of processed food as well as some of the general pros and cons of various types of processed foods. Here I continue with a discussion of the changes that have occurred in the processed food “landscape” in recent history, and what those changes might mean in terms of the way we view these foods from a health perspective, and incorporate them into our diets.
Processed Foods Have Come a Long Way, Baby
(or why your microwavable meal doesn’t look like Grandpa’s “TV dinner”)
You might remember frozen meals coming in compartmented aluminum trays (we were thrilled to get them when mom and dad were going out to an event or party), but things have changed drastically in the world of frozen meals since then. We’ve begun to see more vegetables in frozen entrees, more whole grains, and more entrees that look more like what we would make at home ourselves if we had the time or inclination. Other processed food categories have undergone improvements as well, including added omega-3 fatty acids, added vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals, and less of the things we are looking to reduce in our diets: fat, sodium and calories.
The fact is, food companies have been tweaking recipes (known as “formulations” in the biz) for many processed foods to trim sodium, fat and calorie levels for years. And, although it’s pretty slow going in some instances, progress is being made. Sodium content, for example, is an area where food manufacturers continue to apply reduction efforts. Why? The majority of the sodium we ingest comes from processed and restaurant foods (bread and rolls are a surprising, top source of sodium in our diets). A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013 revealed that sodium levels in the packaged, processed foods sampled for the study declined by roughly 3-5% between 2005 and 2011. It’s not a huge decrease, but it is a decrease, and a step in the right direction. And of course, there have been sodium reductions implemented since 2011, and by some of the largest food companies.
Finding new ways to decrease sodium in foods is a hot area of food R & D, and utilizing alternative ingredients that provide for good taste along with sodium reduction is one way to make it happen. One simple way to reduce sodium while maintaining flavor is to add monosodium glutamate (MSG), which contains about one-third of the sodium of table salt. In fact, when monosodium glutamate is used in combination with a small amount of table salt, it can reduce the total sodium in a recipe by 20 to 40 percent. Many processed, frozen meals contain MSG because of its ability to reduce sodium content, in addition to its flavor enhancing properties.
Sometimes formulation changes in processed foods are unveiled with great fanfare, other times it’s on the down-low. Why? We are highly suggestive beings. If people know their beloved snack foods, pasta or rice side dish mixes, cereals, soups or microwave lunch entrees were being made more healthful in some way, they sometimes immediately “notice”…and voice their unhappiness with the reformulations—no matter if the resulting products are better for them and have minimal taste differences. You know how it goes…if a food is “good for us” it’s automatically less desirable than the regular counter-part. Or at least that’s what some folks think. And, while it’s true that in the 1980s some early product reformulations in the name of health resulted in less-than-stellar tastes and textures, the industry did learn from these early attempts, and products with improved health parameters typically don’t jump onto supermarket shelves before the taste parameters have also been fully addressed.
Obviously, if you look, you can easily find a wide variety of less-healthy processed foods—it certainly isn’t difficult. There is always room for improvement, and of course, nobody is suggesting that a diet solely made up of processed foods is the way we all should be eating. But, there are some really good processed food choices out there—products that will save you time or effort and also provide decent nutrition, too. It’s a matter of taking the time to choose your foods wisely.
Will the Vilification of Processed Food Help Us Eat Better?
This is a topic that’s still debated, of course (and it depends partly on how you define eating “better.”) Mentally categorizing foods according to the extent to which they’re processed might help some folks choose more minimally processed foods…if they like those foods. One suggestion frequently touted by nutrition professionals that’s supposed to help people create a better diet is to “shop the perimeter of the store.” Presumably this shopping method would maximize one’s intake of the most nutritious, least processed foods. It works…sort of. Last time I checked at my store, the produce section, meat counter and dairy sections were on the perimeter…as was the store bakery, deli counter, chilled soda and an ever-changing display of seasonal candy.
Being told about non-processed alternatives to the more-processed foods we’d rather be eating only goes so far. As Steven Nickolas (who is in charge of the Healthy Food Project in Scottsdale, Arizona) so succinctly explained to author David Freedman for his article in The Atlantic last summer, “Everyone’s mother and brother has been telling them to eat fruit and vegetables forever, and the numbers are only getting worse. We’re not going to solve this problem by telling people to not eat processed food.” That’s not to say that educating folks around whole food messages and the basics of a healthy diet shouldn’t be done, but in addition, we have to acknowledge that taste rules when it comes to food choices (studies back this up), and people like the taste of processed foods. So maybe creating more healthful versions of processed foods is the way to go.
It’s About Choices
While certainly not a “sexy” concept, knowing how to make good choices is central to a healthy diet. I truly think that most people know that the cream-filled, individually packaged, orange-flavored snack cake that you have a hankering for is less healthful than the actual orange they could choose to eat instead. Just as we make choices about which whole foods to eat, we can make choices about which processed foods to consume. In a perfect world, we’d be weighing the pros against the cons of every morsel that passes our lips. However, very few of us do that.
Learning to eat healthfully is not about nutritional name-calling or simplistic “eat this, don’t eat that” advice. For example, the oft-repeated suggestion to “avoid anything in a package” is ridiculous—many fresh, whole foods come in packages or with a wrapper of some sort. Instead, healthful eating is an evolving amalgam of behaviors, choices and strategies that people can develop for themselves and their families…or not. Every day we have the opportunity to choose from a very wide variety of foods, weighing our need for efficiency and time-savings with our desires for good taste and health, among other things. One person’s “junk food” may be another’s strategy for avoiding the drive-through with a van full of hungry kids. I like choice, and there’s plenty of information out there with which to make the wisest food choices for our lives.