Not all processed foods are bad for you

Loaves of bread

My gym trainer recently told me that he avoids bread because it is processed. But bread (especially the whole grain variety) is a wonderfully nutritious food – in fact, it’s one of my pantry staples. I couldn’t imagine a day without my lunchtime sandwich. So what’s the problem with processed foods? And why are they perceived as bad or less healthy?

The truth is that most foods undergo some form of processing. For example, milk is pasteurised and homogenised (it’s unsafe otherwise), yoghurt is made using live bacterial cultures, and the ingredients of bread (which of course is baked), include various additives that improve its shelf life.

There are many different types of food processing, such as canning, fermenting, grinding, milling, pickling and cooking, to name a few. These processes can enhance certain flavours, improve the safety of foods and increase their shelf life. Ensuring food safety in the food supply is paramount. Some processes can eliminate microorganisms and pathogens to safeguard us from foodborne illnesses. We should all be grateful for that!

Nevertheless, food processing may alter the nutritional content of certain foods. Heating can destroy some nutrients. Further, milling strips some grains of their fibre. And certain additives, salt, stabilisers, thickeners and sweeteners, that are not usually nutritionally beneficial, can be added to foods to improve palatability and extend expiry dates.

Yes, it is true that last year the World Health Organisation reported a link between a high intake of heavily processed meats and colon cancer. Foods such as bacon, deli meats and sausages were in the firing line. These foods are heavily processed and high in preservatives, other additives and salt. Limiting one’s intake of these types of foods is wise.

However, we must make a distinction between processed foods such as bacon, hot dogs, jerky, smoked meats, sausages and cold cut meats, and the processing that involves steaming and canning beans. You don’t need me to tell you that tinned legumes are a healthier choice than tinned ham; that goes without saying. Eating food closest to its natural state will always be best.

So what to do with this information? Well, I know what I will be doing. I will continue to opt for fresh fruit and vegetables when I can, but I won’t stop eating baked beans, canned fish and frozen vegetables. I certainly won’t be giving up my lunchtime sandwich either. And I suggest that you don’t either.

As for my personal trainer, who avoids bread because it’s processed, he’s missing out on low GI carbohydrates, fibre and a range of vitamins and minerals including thiamin, folate and iodine and potassium. And that logic is hard to process.   

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