Years and years ago, food came straight from the ground or from the branch and went directly to the table. That sort of freshness is a little harder to come by today, but not impossible. Farmers markets and roadside stands offer fresh produce, and a lucky few of us have time to cultivate gardens that produce the fruits or vegetables we feed our families.
Aside from these unique scenarios, however, most of our pantry shelves are probably lined with foods that have been processed in some way. What is a processed food? Almost everything that you buy in the grocery store falls into this category. But which processing or additives are necessary, and which should you be careful to avoid?
Choosing Processed Foods
Living a RealAge lifestyle means eating nutritious, low-calorie foods. Limiting processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition makes your RealAge younger.
However, eliminating processed foods altogether from your diet is not practical or even desirable in some cases. In some instances, processing can be a good thing. Cooking is a prime example of beneficial processing, because it makes food more digestible. Adding extra vitamins and minerals to foods such as orange juice or cereal may help you fill nutrition gaps in your diet. And certain processing practices help prevent food from spoiling or from being decimated by pests and may even help preserve the food's nutritional value. For example, vegetables that are "fresh frozen" may have a higher nutritional value than vegetables that are picked too early and spend weeks en route to the market. And wheat that has been processed into flour makes the food more versatile, accessible, and edible.
But oftentimes, choosing foods that have been only minimally processed is your best bet for optimizing nutrition. Highly processed foods may have less nutritional value or may contain unnecessary or nutritionally void ingredients. For example:
All flour is processed, but highly processed or refined white flour is likely to contain much less fiber and minerals such as magnesium than lightly processed whole-wheat flour.
Juices that have been processed with added sugar are higher in calories and typically less nutritious than fresh-squeezed juices.
Berry pies or jams that have artificial colors added may have a vibrant hue, but artificial coloring doesn't add any nutritional value to the product. In fact, some artificial colors have been taken off the market due to health concerns associated with them.
So educating yourself about the different food additives and their uses can help you decide which ones seem appropriate and necessary for you and your lifestyle.
The Useful Side of Processed Food
There are six basic reasons food is processed, and some of them are very helpful:
To improve the flavor or color
To balance the acidity or alkalinity
To provide leavening so flour products, such as cakes and bread, rise
To preserve freshness, improve taste, and prevent spoiling
To maintain or improve the nutritional value
To maintain the consistency of a product's taste and texture
Which ingredients do what in your favorite processed foods? Take a look at the labeling of a processed food item and you are likely to find any number of impossible-to-pronounce additives with purposes that are mysterious.
Test Your Additive Savvy
Do any of the following useful additives sound familiar? In the chart below, try matching each additive with the correct statement from the drop-down menu.
Medical Disclaimer: The content on this site is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional medical advice or care from physicians or trained medical professionals. If experiencing symptoms or health problems, seek the advice of your healthcare providers.