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.

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."

The bottom line is many foods need to go through processing to make them edible and easier to use, such as cans of stewed or diced tomatoes. Processing can also extend shelf life and make food safer, such as pasteurizing milk and juices.

Q and A

Q: Are there any benefits to "teatoxing"?

A: Of all the nutrition misinformation, the idea that one can "detox" tolose weight and get healthy is among the most popular and potentially most harmful. Proponents claim that you can "flush your system" by drinking special concoctions. Teatoxing, a hybrid of "tea" and "detox," adds a new twist to an old story; a special tea drunk twice a day will "remove toxins" and help you lose weight. The problem: there's little scientific evidence that it works. In order to lose weight, you must reduce calorie intake. And "detoxing" is a premise with no scientific foundation to prove it's correct. Our bodies regularly remove toxins through our liver and kidneys. Many teatoxing teas contain senna leaf - a known herbal laxative. Consumers of the tea may have increased bowel movements which might give the impression of a detox. This could also result in weight loss, but not in a healthful way. On a bright note, teatoxing plans also may include recommendations for healthy eating. One such program suggests eating a diet comprised of fruits, vegetables, beans, tofu, oats and brown rice. That's a recommendation worth trying -- no special tea required. -- Environmental Nutrition.


Here's a recipe for a holiday meal that utilizes your slow cooker. It's from the Produce for Kids website.

--Sponsored Video--

Slow Cooker Ham and Pineapple with Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 pounds fully cooked low-sodium ham

1/3 cup apple juice

1/2 pineapple, cored, sliced

1/2 cup cherries, pitted

2 cups asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1" pieces

2 tablespoons Italian dressing

For ham, mix brown sugar, honey and mustard in small bowl. Place ham in slow cooker. Pour apple juice on top, then coat ham in mustard glaze. Top with pineapple slices and cherries. Cook in slow cooker 6 hours on low. Ten minutes prior to serving, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss asparagus, tomatoes and dressing in a small bowl. Pour onto parchment-lined baking sheet and bake 8-10 minutes or until tender. Serves 8.

Per serving: 285 calories, 26 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 2.8 g fiber, 924 mg sodium.


Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill and a spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at or follow her on Twitter @Nutrition Rd. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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