There’s no doubt about it, most processed food is terrible for your health, and most people eat way too much of it.
But does that mean processed food is always bad? Or can it actually be good for you once in a while?
The quick (and somewhat surprising) answer is yes
“To say all processed food is bad is a mistake,” according to Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
The fact is, processed can mean a lot of different things and the FDA’s definition of “fresh” doesn’t really capture the whole picture.
According to those guys, fresh food must be “in a raw state” and cannot have been “frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or preservation.” Except of course for some post-harvest pesticides, waxes, coatings, and ionizing radiation. Yum!
In other words, if you make bread at home, that’s technically processed. If you sauté your peppers, they’re processed. Boil your egg, it’s processed. You get the idea.
Throw the definition out the window
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As Mozaffarian says, “You can have something that’s fresh and processed and something that’s fresh and not processed.”
What’s more important is how processed it is. Some forms of processing are mild and harmless, or “minimally processed,” while other foods are “highly processed” and highly dangerous. So highly that the countless ingredients they contain are completely unrecognizable. Sadly, in America more than half of the calories consumed come from foods of the latter sort.
But how can processed ever be better than fresh?
Take the case of buying fruit when it’s not in season.
If you want a fresh peach in the middle of winter (which let’s face it, who doesn’t?), then that peach is going to have to travel a mighty long way. The journey from South America could take weeks, or even months.
Sitting there alone in a fridge for hours on end, that peach is going to lose some of its nutritional value. When it arrives at the store and hops its way into your shopping cart, you’ll have yourself a “fresh” piece of fruit, but it won’t be your healthiest option.
A better bet is to go with frozen. Though technically “processed,” frozen fruit can contain more nutrients because it’s usually frozen right after harvest, at the peak of freshness and nutritional value.
And the science agrees
A study out of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that freezing can help preserve nutrients, while fresh produce is more vulnerable to rapid nutrient loss.
Of course the main thing to realize is that we shouldn’t get stuck on technicalities. Eating highly processed foods where you can’t tell what the food is made of, even if you read the ingredient list, is a bad idea. Eating more fruits and vegetables is a good idea.
But whether those fruits and vegetables are technically “processed,” probably doesn’t matter so much. As Mozaffarian says, “eat any peach versus no peach at all.”
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