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Health & Spirit

Processed Food Primer for the New Year

Charlyn Fargo on

When is a processed food a good choice? Some would say never. But that's really not the case. Many processed foods offer good nutrition and convenience.

The buzzword when it comes to healthy foods is to eat "whole" or "clean," choosing foods such as arugula, apples or avocadoes.

"I think there is a widespread misunderstanding that a processed food is unhealthy," writes Alicia Romano, a registered dietitian at Tufts Frances Stern Nutrition Center in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. "The term 'processed food' is so broad it covers an array of foods -- including ones that many people consider healthy but do not know are processed."

How do you tell?

Read the label. If a food contains added sodium, unhealthy fats, sugar and calories, it's probably not a good choice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a processed food as everything besides raw "agricultural commodities" like fruits, vegetables and grains. When those foods are cooked, canned, pasteurized, frozen, sliced, chopped, milled or dehydrated, they are considered processed foods, adds Romano.

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Choosing healthy processed foods can be a little more complicated.

"The USDA definition of processed food can be confusing to consumers because it encompasses so many foods," said Romano. "In many people's minds, it puts an 'unhealthy' label on foods that have great nutritional value."

She recommends focusing on the ingredient list on the label. Red flags are added sugars, refined flours and high levels of sodium. Highly processed foods can have more calories, sugar, salt and saturated or trans fats, and they can lead to higher risks for chronic diseases.

"If a frozen meal or packaged breakfast cereal is really convenient for your, I would recommend looking at the food label and doing some investigation into the ingredients," said Romano. "Choose varieties with the lowest added sugars and lowest sodium."

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