Frozen, processed and packaged foods have a bad reputation in the food and nutrition world but are often misunderstood. While the foods that we typically think of as processed (i.e. chips, cookies, cereals, candy, etc.) are less nutritious than whole, unprocessed foods, some processed foods can be included as a part of a well-balanced diet.
What is a ‘Processed’ Food?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a ‘processed’ food is defined as any raw food that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.
Food is processed for a variety of reasons, but mainly to achieve the following:
- Prevent spoilage (e.g. canned tuna)
- Make a food more convenient (e.g. whey protein powder)
- Boost vitamin/mineral content (e.g. milk fortified with Vitamin D)
- Ensure safety (e.g. adding nitrates to cured meats to inhibit bacteria growth)
Tips for Choosing Packaged and Frozen Foods
Packaged and frozen foods are often higher in added sugar (i.e. any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food), trans fats, saturated fats, and sodium. However, healthy options are often available. Read below for tips from the SHIFT Dietitians on how to best navigate choosing these foods in the grocery store.
- Read the nutrition label – Check the serving size to see how many servings the package contains (sometimes individual items can contain more than 1 serving). Look for options with 0 g trans fats, that contain low amounts of sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, and higher amounts of protein and fiber. Fiber often indicates a nutrient dense food, as it is mainly found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Check the ingredient list – Look for items with a minimal number of ingredients and ingredients that you recognize. Remember that ingredients are listed in order of greatest amount, so choose options with higher nutrient value in the first 2-3 ingredients (for example, choose a bread with 100% whole grain wheat in the first 2 ingredients). Added sugars can often be disguised by a variety of terms, like maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrate, to name a few. Trans fats are hidden by the terms hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils.
- Be wary of ‘healthified’ foods – Food companies are experts at portraying classically deemed ‘junk foods’ as healthy foods. Vegetable chips, fruit snacks, and fruit juices do not take the place of whole fruits and vegetables.
Frozen food products have come a long way in recent years. Frozen vegetables and fruits for the most part are just as nutritious as fresh ones and can be a great way to ensure you always have a backup of produce. Frozen meals can also be a great option if making a homemade meal is not possible. Frozen meals save time, are convenient, and can help reduce food waste. In choosing frozen meals, try to use these benchmarks to help you achieve a more nutritious meal:
- At least 15 g protein per serving
- At least 5 g fiber per serving
- Less than 600 mg sodium per serving
Also, remember that you can always use frozen foods as a part of the Balanced Plate. Based on what comes in the frozen meal, you might need to add a lean protein, more vegetables, or a complex carb to help balance out the meal. If you have questions about specific frozen food brands, reach out to our SHIFT Dietitians for more individualized recommendations.
Overall, frozen, processed and packaged foods are a confusing area of nutrition full of misconceptions. In general, people benefit from having more fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet, so while these foods can be a part of a balanced diet, we do not want them to take the place of fresh fruits and vegetables. Use these items to fill up your balanced plate and to add convenience to your meals.
Feel free to reach out to your SHIFT Dietitian with any further questions!