Processed vs. Unprocessed Foods

Ashley Zhao, Staff Writer

Whenever you see words like organic, non-GMO, natural, fresh, or local being thrown around our supermarkets, it’s hard to decide what products to choose without actually knowing what each of these labels actually means. For instance, I’ve been seeing images of an all green Coca-Cola can with the word “organic” plastered on it floating around the Internet. But does this mean that the drink will be any less processed and harmful to your health? Probably not. For the health and safety of your stomach, I’ll be describing how to tell the difference between processed and unprocessed foods without depending on an unreliable label.

The main factor in deciding whether something is processed or unprocessed is its ingredients. Most processed foods tend to focus on being “energy-dense”, or just high in calories, by packing a certain food with several ingredients that provide little nutrients for the human body. Other ingredients might be added for the purpose of a better taste, more appealing physique, or longer lasting shelf-life. The most common ingredients to find in your pantry include added sugars, sodium, and fat. As stated by Torey Armul MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added manually. Just because a food is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s free of added sugars, either…compare food labels to find the product with more protein and fiber and less saturated fat and sugars.” Even in products that aren’t conventionally sweet, like bread and pasta sauces, sugars are added for a more appealing look and a more consistent taste across every product. On a product’s Nutrition facts label, make sure to look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients. These might include ingredients such as sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrate.

Adding sodium to foods like canned vegetables, soups, and sauces is “to preserve foods and extend shelf-life,” says Armul. It’s obvious that our bodies need some sort of sodium, but we often consume much more than the American Heart Association’s regulation of 2,300 milligrams or less a day. Just to be safe, look out for foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to reduce your daily sodium intake.

Fats are also added to foods to make them more shelf-stable, letting them be able to be stored safely in a sealed container at room temperature, and give a more bodied taste. Even though they are on the decline in processed foods, trans fats can still be found in several foods and have been shown to raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good cholesterol. As said by Armul, “check both the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list for trans fats. Look for zero grams of trans fats on the label and no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. These oils contain trans fat, which does not have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts Label if it amounts to less than 0.5 grams per serving. However, even this amount is not safe to consume. If the food lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient put it back.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have unprocessed “real” foods. These have little to no added sugar or fats and tend to be more nutrient dense. These nutrients are provided through things such as fiber, minerals, and vitamins. If you’re looking for ways to incorporate more unprocessed foods into your meals, try buying seasonal foods directly from farmers’ markets. But if there aren’t any in your area, only shop in areas that have unprocessed foods and avoid aisles that are stocked with processed foods. You can usually find unprocessed foods like vegetables and fruits that are either fresh or frozen, fresh meats, eggs, and low-fat dairy products around the perimeter of your local grocery market.

If you’re looking to improve your health or you just try out new foods, knowing which ones will provide the best nutritional value to your body is especially important. Eating unhealthily now will not only affect your current state of health, but also how it will be several years from now. Choose your snacks wisely, or else your body will be the one to face the consequences.