All posts by: Ellison Lambert

About Ellison Lambert

Myths vs. Facts: Exposing Five Common Misconceptions Around Processed Foods 

“Processed food is not real food.” 

A processed food is any food that is changed from its natural state. This means any food that is cut, chopped, cooked, frozen, dried, salted, fermented, or altered in any way is considered a processed food. Thus, frozen vegetables, bread, and yogurt are all considered processed food. And, while some processed foods may be more heavily changed than others, all processed food starts from a natural (real) plant or animal. 

“You should avoid all processed foods.” 

It is not necessary to avoid processed foods, nor is it recommended by registered dietitian nutritionists or other health professionals. Processing can make food products more nutritious and palatable, ensure they are safe to eat for longer periods of time, as well as more affordable and accessible. It also allows us to eat healthy foods which we would not normally be able to eat or even digest, if not processed, such as tofu, beans, pulses and legumes, or oatmeal. Avoiding all processed foods also means a life without coffee, chocolate, and wine. 

“Processed foods contain no nutritional value.” 

Not all processed foods are created equal. Some processed foods, even those classified as ultra-processed, are low in sugar, fat, and sodium and considered healthy. Think of canned fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, and soymilk. Other foods can actually increase in nutritional value due to processing. For example, canning increases the bioavailability of a beneficial nutrient called lycopene in tomatoes while fortified cereals and breads often have iron, folic acid, B-vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients added to them to boost their nutritional value.   

“Processed foods negatively impact health.” 

In August 2023, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed a nutrient-dense, healthy diet consisting of more than 90% of total calories from ultra-processed foods that aligned with 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and scored more than 25 points higher on the diet quality scale than the average American’s typical diet. It included foods such as flour tortillas, rotisserie chicken, and dried apricots. This proves that following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Find out more about how the guidelines can help reduce the risk of chronic diet-related disease and promote a healthier lifestyle on their website

There are no benefits to buying or eating ultra-processed food.” 

Some ultra-processed foods offer many benefits. From a nutritional perspective, certain processed and ultra-processed foods contain key nutrients which are often overlooked in a typical diet, such as dietary fiber. For those with a limited income, ultra-processed foods offer a faster and lower-cost way to get dinner on the table. Some people prefer the taste of ultra-processed foods compared to other less processed alternatives. In fact, according to a 2023 consumer Food and Health Survey, convenience, affordability, shelf-life, and taste are the most positive aspects of processed food. These are also likely the main reasons why the survey found 8 in 10 consumers keep processed foods in their household.   

Are Ultra-processed Foods like The Dirty Dozen? 

Annually, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) develops the “Dirty Dozen” list – made up of fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, spinach, apples, and blueberries that are deemed as containing dangerous amounts of pesticide residues. This fear-based approach not only conveys the false idea that conventional produce is unsafe to eat, but it also indirectly encourages people to remove the exact foods that registered dietitian nutritionists are trying to have people eat more of. In fact, the health benefits of eating washed, fresh produce far outweighs the risk of pesticide exposure.   

Like the Dirty Dozen, removing ultra-processed foods from your diet can have an effect similar to missing out on healthy foods which can lead to unintentional negative consequences. The key is to read nutrition/ingredient labels and choose ultra-processed foods that are low in fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, calories, and contain nutritious ingredients.

Here are four ways ultra-processed foods can help you stay healthy and even improve your diet:  

High-Fiber Foods – Many canned beans are considered ultra-processed and while fresh dried beans are available, few people have the time to make them from scratch. If sodium is a concern, be sure to rinse the beans before preparing. Whole grain breads are another common way consumers get their fiber and one of the easiest ways not only to increase fiber intake but to also add more fiber variety to the diet. 

Non-Dairy Milk – Through advances in technology and food processing, plant-based alternative milks such as soymilk, almond milk, or oat milk, are now available. Additionally, some of these options are low in saturated fat which means they are a better choice for those people with heart disease or those watching their cholesterol. Vegans who avoid animal-based foods can appreciate ultra-processed non-dairy products.  

Convenience – Convenience foods can be a life-saver for busy families and singles on-the-go and are often a major purchase driver in the retail store. Choosing convenient foods like cheese, crackers, frozen pizza, and hummus are easy and nutritious options that can be quickly put on the table. However, time isn’t the only reason people choose convenience foods; taste and ease of preparation are other major decisive factors.  

Affordability – While taste is the number one reason why people purchase a certain food, cost is a close second (followed by convenience). For some, ultra-processed foods like peanut butter, fruited-yogurt, frozen vegetables, and flavored oatmeal, make up the bulk of their diet. Others use these foods to complement and balance higher cost proteins or side items. 

Mindful Meals: Reducing Food Waste  

There are many definitions of sustainability, but the most common is providing for the needs of the present (the people, the planet and the economy) without hurting the needs of future generations (like harming the environment or natural resources). While this may seem like a lofty goal for the average person, there is one thing you can do that does make a difference: reduce food waste.  

Experts say the average American wastes about 30-40 percent of the US food supply. This amounts to roughly 325 pounds of food wasted per person per year, or nearly 1 pound per day. For single people or those with small households, that number is even higher. Why? Because people who live alone tend to buy more food than they need, which leads to higher food waste. If you fit in this category, what should you do?  

Here are three ways to reduce food waste in your household:  

Buy foods with a longer shelf life – Processed packaged, canned, or frozen foods can often stay for longer periods of time on the shelf or in the refrigerator. In fact, the average US shopper shops at a grocery store only about 1-2 times per week, so having foods that last through the week is a must. Consider keeping staples on hand like peanut butter and jelly, a loaf of sliced bread, cereal, and canned fish, chicken, or beans. All of these can make a quick, simple, and easy weeknight meal or light supper.  

Be more efficient in the kitchen – Meal planning and/or prepping in advance saves time, money, and often ensures you have a satisfying meal on the table even on busy nights. Write up a menu and stick to it. Use pantry and refrigerator staples you already have open in your fridge like jarred pesto, olives, salsa, roasted peppers, salad dressing, marinades, or sauces to dress up your meals. You may also want to create one meal around a specific convenience food like chicken tenders, frozen pizza, canned soup, or fried fish sticks. Then supplement the entrée with fresh or frozen vegetables and/or a green salad.    

Make friends with your freezer – The best way to prevent food waste is to serve only what you want to eat and freeze the rest for another meal. Think about cooking a big batch of soup, stew, or a casserole, then portion it out in individual containers and freeze. For a complete meal, include all the sides like a starch or vegetable. This way all you have to do is pull out the meal from the freezer in the morning, place it in the fridge, then thaw, heat, and serve for a quick ready-made dinner after work.  

Stocking Up on Convenience: The 10 Must-Have Foods for Your Kitchen  

Shelf-stable foods ensure the availability of high-quality, and great-tasting food. With increased food prices, stocking-up on these long-lasting healthy foods is good for your family and wallet. Food additives such as antioxidants and preservatives play a crucial role in making products shelf-stable by preventing or slowing down the spoilage and deterioration processes. Here is a list of the top ten, budget-friendly foods to keep in your kitchen:

  • Canned or Dried Beans – Beans are high in fiber, full of plant protein, contain several vitamins and minerals, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes: red beans, black beans, white beans, etc. They can be paired with a starch, like rice or pasta, to make a quick and satisfying meal. Draining and rinsing canned beans will reduce the salt (sodium) content by 45-50%. They make for a convenient and shelf-stable product that can be stored at room temperature for an extended period of time. Dried beans are easy to prepare with water on the stove or in a crock pot. 
  • Plain Greek Yogurt – Greek yogurt contains as much as 17 grams of protein per serving, compared with around 9 grams in regular yogurt, and is a good source of calcium. Greek yogurt with probiotics can aid with gut health. It is a good snack or light meal that can be combined with fresh or canned fruit, nuts, or seeds.
  • Fortified Cereals – Fortified cereals are a good source of many essential B vitamins and can also give you an added boost of fiber. Choose low sugar, high fiber varieties for the most nutritional value. Fortified cereals remain safe and nutritious for an extended period without the need for refrigeration as a result of the ingredients used, the manufacturing processes and the packaging techniques.
  • Nut Butters – Nuts, seeds, and legumes (like peanut butter) provide a wealth of nutrients. In addition to the plant protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and good fats, these foods supply hard-to-get nutrients like iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Spread these butters on bread with jam or jelly for a quick, nutritious, and satisfying meal or snack. 
  • Canned or Pouched Tuna or Salmon – In addition to being high in protein and beneficial omega-3 fats, canned or pouched tuna and salmon are also good sources of vitamin D and great for heart health. If you are concerned about sodium, rinse the seafood before eating or buy a low sodium version. Avoid purchasing tuna or salmon packed in oil to lower the added fat. 
  • Bagged Salads – Easy and convenient, bagged salads are a great way to get your veggies with a lot less work. Combine it with your favorite dressing and throw in some protein like chicken, beans, or fish for a complete meal. If you want an even easier meal, try buying a complete salad meal kit, but use the salad dressing sparingly to keep calories low. 
  • Plant-Based Milks – Plant-based milks are a great option for people who can’t digest cow’s milk. Common examples include soy, almond, oat, coconut, cashew, and others. High in protein, potassium, and beneficial plant compounds, soy milk is a nutritional powerhouse. Be sure to purchase plant-based milk that has been fortified with vitamin D and other nutrients normally found in cow’s milk. 
  • Tofu – Like soy milk, tofu is an excellent source of plant protein and rich in vitamins, minerals, as well as healthy unsaturated fats. Firm tofu is great in stir-fries or grilled as a meat replacement, while soft tofu can be used in place of cheese in dishes like lasagna or scrambled like eggs. 
  • Tomato Sauce – Tomato sauce is most well-known for its high lycopene content. Lycopene is a good-for-you antioxidant, which gives tomato sauce its red color, and is thought to have numerous health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers. There are different factors that help make tomato sauce shelf-stable such as the method of canning, tomato’s natural acidity, adjusting pH levels, and the packaging methods used to help maintain the integrity of the sauce. Tomato sauce is a favorite on pasta and used in a multitude of dishes. Be sure to purchase a lower sodium option, or make from scratch using herbs instead of added salt. 
  • Frozen Dinners – While not all frozen foods are created equally, there are many healthy options. Choose meals that are low in fat, low in added sugar and salt, are high in fiber, and loaded with vegetables. Frozen dinners are designed to be stored in the freezer to preserve their quality and safety, making them suitable for long-term storage. Keep them as a backup when time is short and nothing is planned.