Lightly processed foods can be healthy, nutritious choices

Published 9:00 am Friday, March 31, 2017

Lightly processed foods can be healthy, nutritious choices

It’s the 5th Friday of March and another opportunity to preach a little more in recognition of National Nutrition Month. Let’s consider processed foods.  Good or bad you say?
Processed food has a bad reputation.  It’s blamed for our nation’s obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed mac and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. Actually whole-wheat bread, homemade soup and a chopped apple are all processed foods. Here’s how to sort the nutritious from the not-so-nutritious.
The term processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption.  It includes food that has been cut, cooked, mashed, canned, frozen, packaged, fortified, or preserved.
White bread is a processed food and so are home canned green beans.  Any time any food is cooked or prepared in any way it becomes a processed food.  The handy and convenient kitchen appliance, the “food processor,” is actually where the term “processed food” comes from.
Processed food rates from minimally to heavily processed. This list explains the difference.
•    Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
•    Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
•    Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
•    Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
•    The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
On the positive side. Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.
The trick is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed.  Lightly processed foods include pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna and frozen vegetables. These are nutritious choices and can make healthy eating more convenient. Heavily processed foods can be recognized as food not in its original form, like potato chips and crackers, or food that is not naturally occurring, such as sodas, donuts, cookies and candy.
Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but for the healthiest choices we should read nutrition labels to find hidden sugar, sodium and fat.  Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added.  And beware:  just because a food is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s free of added sugar. The same holds true with reduced-fat and fat-free products. Added sugars often are used in low-fat foods to improve taste and consistency.  Read food labels to find the product with more protein and fiber and less saturated fat and sugars.
Added sugars aren’t just hidden in processed sweets. They’re added to bread to make it brown.  Some pasta sauces and cereal have surprising amounts of added sugars. The grams of carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts Label also include naturally occurring sugars which may be significant in foods such as yogurt and fruit.  To avoid extra sugar look for the terms sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate among the first two or three ingredients.
Sodium: Processed foods are major sources of sodium in our diets because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life. Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have a too much added salt.  Best to choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease the amount of salt you’re consuming. Yes we do need some sodium but best if limited to less than 2300 milligrams a day. That’s less than 1 total teaspoon of salt.
Fats:  Added fats help make food shelf-stable and give it body. Today there are less artificial trans fats in foods because the FDA has banned them, but companies have until 2018 to comply.  In the meantime, keep reading labels. It’s best to avoid any amount of trans fats and partially hydrogenated oil.
Eat wisely.
Recipe of the Week
Brown Rice Risotto with Shrimp

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup short grain brown rice, raw
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, divided
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 pound shrimp, raw
½ cup grated parmesan
In a large saucepan, heat oil, sauté onion and garlic. Add rice and cook quickly for 2 minutes more, stirring constantly.  Add ½ cup vegetable broth, rosemary, parsley and saffron. Stir well, cover and gently simmer. Add another ½ cup of broth as liquid is absorbed. Continue with remaining broth until it’s all used. Rice should be tender after cooking for about 30 minutes. While waiting for the rice to cook, bring one quart of water to a boil. Cook shrimp until pink. Drain and reserve. Just before the rice is done, add ¼ cup parmesan and let melt, then remove from heat. Add cooked shrimp to rice. Toss until combined. Top with remaining cheese and serve.  Makes 6 one-cup servings.  300 calories each.

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