When we think of processed foods, we usually think of things that have been drained of their nutrients and stuffed full of salt, fat and sugar to enhance their taste and shelf life.

In fact, the reality is more nuanced.

In a bid to eat “clean” or more healthily, the more diet-conscious among us are choosing whole, unprocessed foods over processed ones.

The former, we’re told, are more nutritionally dense since they’re likely to be in as close to their natural state as possible, while the latter tend to hold less nutritional value.

According to Sally Shi-Po Poon, a dietitian in Hong Kong, and director of Personal Dietitian, the term “processed foods” applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, for safety or convenience.

Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurising.

Examples of common processed foods include breakfast cereals, cheese, canned and frozen vegetables, bread, noodles and pasta, savoury snacks such as crisps and biscuits, microwave or ready-to-eat meals, oils, processed meats such as luncheon meat and jerky, and drinks such as milk, juice and coffee.

Canned sardines is a common processed food we go for. Photo: The Star

Not all processed food are the same

But not all processed foods are created equal.

In fact, Poon says that processing is sometimes a must to make a particular food safe for consumption.

In this context, some processed foods are actually healthier than their unprocessed counterparts.

Take milk, for instance, which needs to be pasteurised (heat treated) to remove harmful bacteria.

Frozen fruit and vegetables, too, can be just as healthy or sometimes even healthier than the fresh variety, as the freezing process takes place as soon as the product is picked, thus retaining nutrients.

And when it comes to processed noodles and pasta, some are more nutritionally superior to others, Poon adds.

Soba or buckwheat noodles, rice vermicelli, udon and whole grain pasta, for example, are better carbohydrate choices than, say, instant or cup noodles, which are usually fried and contain a lot of sodium and additives, and refined white pasta.

Processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet

Vin Ip, founder and senior dietitian of Health Designer, says that the trick is in knowing how to distinguish between minimally processed foods and heavily processed ones.

“Minimally processed foods are almost identical to unprocessed foods and are therefore acceptable to include in our diet,” he says.

“Foods that have been processed at their peak to lock in their nutrients are also good choices.”

In these categories are foods like bagged spinach, frozen vegetables and fruit, dry-roasted nuts, and canned goods such as tomatoes and tuna (check the label to make sure that these do not contain added sugar or salt).

Heavily processed food

As for heavily processed foods, you’re best off eating them less often or not at all.

These include foods like jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, flavoured yoghurt, cake mixes, and anything to which salt, sugar and fat have been added to make them taste better, improve their texture or prolong their shelf life.

Most ready-to-eat foods, like crackers, granola, crisps, carbonated drinks, and deli meats like bacon, salami and sausages, are heavily processed.

“Eating 50g of processed meat every day increases one’s risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent,” Poon says.

“That’s the equivalent of about four strips of bacon or one hot dog.”

Heavily processed food may be high in salt and cause cancer.

Read the labels 

In addition to large amounts of salt, many processed meats also contain nitrites and nitrates, which give them their colour and prolong their shelf life.

Some health experts believe that nitrites can be carcinogenic.

Ip suggests reading a product’s nutrition label or ingredient list when shopping.

Stay clear of items that are very high in sodium, sugar, saturated fat and trans fat.

And while fresh fruit juice is often minimally processed, Poon says you should limit how much you consume, as fruit juice is usually high in fructose (a natural sugar) and devoid of dietary fibre.

You’re better off eating the whole fruit, she says, as it contains fibre to keep your digestive system healthy, and leaves you feeling fuller for longer and won’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike and crash. – South China Morning Post/Sasha Gonzales