They’re simple, convenient and often backed by a brand name you trust, but just how good for you are processed and packaged foods?
If you have a busy lifestyle – and let’s face it who doesn’t these days – it’s so much easier to throw something in the oven or microwave to get dinner sorted, especially if you have kids. But as you may already suspect, it’s not always your best option from a health perspective.
Just as your car needs the right fuel to run smoothly, so we need fresh fruit and vegetables to get the best out of our bodies, whether for work, play, learning, sport and any of our other daily activities.
And when it comes to packaged and processed foodstuffs, sometimes we’re simply missing the mark, which can have adverse effects on our health.
What counts as processed food?
The processed label doesn’t just apply to just microwave and other ready meals. A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. This can mean anything from being frozen, canned, baked or dried, to having additives or extra seasoning added during the preparation process.
To give you an idea, this includes anything from breakfast cereals, cheese and bread to cakes, chips, bacon and soft drinks. Even the legendary Kiwi pie.
That said, not all processed foods are bad for you. Some foods actually need processing to make them safe for consumers – like milk, which must be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods also need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing olives for olive oil.
Why are some processed foods less healthy?
Not all processed foods are unhealthy, but some may contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat. These ingredients are often added to make flavours more appealing, to extend shelf life or in some cases to change the food’s structure – no one likes a dry cake!
The trouble is, these added ingredients can lead to people eating way more than their recommended daily intakes of sugar, salt and fat – without even being aware of it. This unfortunately results in excess calories.
How can I make better choices?
We might not have control over the amount of salt, sugar and fat going into processed foods, but we can control how much we eat, and which products we choose to buy. If you’re concerned, be sure to check the nutrition information on the back of the packet. This should tell you just how much sugar, fat and salt is in that product.
Good old fruit and vegetables
If you’re looking to eat healthier, fresh fruit and vegetables are your friend. 5+ A Day ought to do it! Research strongly suggests that they help to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and there’s also evidence they may reduce weight gain, constipation, blood pressure and cholesterol, and improve control of diabetes.
What’s more, they’re full of vitamins, minerals and fibre without too many calories – although make sure to prioritise non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, beans and mushrooms, and eat starchier carbohydrates such as kumara and potatoes in moderation – around one fist sized portion per meal.
Tips for every meal
Getting 5+ A Day into every meal can sometimes be a challenge. So here are a few quick tips to help you on your way.
Slice or grate your favourite fruit into your cereal. Or add some chopped vegetables like peppers, mushrooms, spinach or broccoli to your scrambled eggs or omelettes.
Load a few extra vegetables like grated carrot and lettuce into your sandwiches. Spread avocado on your sandwiches instead of butter, or make yourself a spicy tomato salsa for dipping.
Add some extra vegetables to your mince dishes. Boil up a hearty soup with leftover hangi or roasts, or add layers of spinach or silverbeet in your lasagne.
Remember, not all processed foods are bad for you. But if you can replace them with fresh fruit and vegetables – and cut down on those snacks you know aren’t too healthy – it won’t be long before you start to feel fitter, and look healthier too!
For more great ideas and recipes for eating healthier, visit the 5+ a Day website.