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Eating Less Processed Foods…Worth It?

I was recently asked this question:

My friend is all about eating less processed foods lately. What’s this about it? Is it worth it?

Eating less processed is definitely a big food and nutrition trend that has been popular for the past few years. Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules, has a lot to do with this trend. One of his food “rules” is: “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” Then he told Oprah, “Food is alive and should die.”

And you have Jamie Oliver who is trying to revolutionize school meals by making more of them in school kitchens and getting rid of processed, packaged, heat-and-serve meals.

Simplicity, back to basics, clean ingredients are trends for 2011 that also appeared on last year’s trend expectations. Packaged foods are aiming for less salt, sugars, and now high fructose corn syrup.

And you’ve probably heard you need to choose foods with less than five ingredients in their ingredient list or were told to put the food back on the shelf if there’s an ingredient you can’t say–or your grandmother wouldn’t know.

All of these make up the pieces for “eating less processed” foods. The question is, is it worth?

Definitely yes.

When you aim to make more of your food at home and eat less processed, you are skipping sodium, hydrogenated fat, added sugars (regardless of the type), dyes, and preservatives. And you can live without lots of those!

How far should–or could–you go with eating less processed?

I believe that’s an act of balance between your nutrition and health goals and the level of convenience you need in your life. Realistically speaking, with our chaotic, busy, fast-paced lifestyles, we all need processed foods every now and then.

Canned and frozen vegetables, breads, flours, cereals, rolled oats, baked goods, pre-washed salad greens, shredded carrots, crackers, salad dressings, marinades, cooking and dipping sauces, 100% fruit juice, milk, cheese, and yogurt are all processed to some level. And while it’s easy to say skipping processed baked goods is a step towards better health, we can argue about pre-washed and pre-cut produce, or even whole wheat flour.

Can you make whole wheat bread from scratch? Picture source: Flickr, by Martin LaBar

Eating more “from scratch” foods is definitely an action I would recommend. How far you can take it is something you have to decide on your own.  Small steps are key. These are five things I started doing to give you ideas:

  1. Make pasta sauce at home. Start with a can of low-sodium crushed tomatoes (still some processing but a step closer to scratch). Add lots of Italian seasonings, such as fresh garlic, oregano, thyme, basil, and olive oil. Benefit: less sodium and sugar.
  2. Make salad dressings at home. This one is easy. Squeeze some lemon, drizzle some olive oil, a little bit of vinegar (balsamic or apple cider), and a hint of salt and pepper.
  3. Bake at home–breads, muffins, cupcakes, and cookies–from scratch. While still considered treats, I feel more comfortable knowing what’s exactly in them.
  4. Switch to non-traditional whole grains. Try quinoa, wild rice, and bulgur (although it’s somewhat pre-cooked). I find myself eating more oatmeal (rolled oats–somewhat processes) than ready-to-eat cereals (more processed).
  5. Switch to real cheese. I stopped buying cheese singles.

I’m not the queen of no-processed-foods and always looking for ways to make the meals and snacks I eat and serve my family healthier. What are your tips? What do you do to eat less processed?

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Martin LaBar December 6, 2010, 5:23 pm

    Thanks for asking permission.

  • Nicole, RD December 9, 2010, 11:41 am

    Those are perfect tips. Very doable!

  • Lauren Slayton December 10, 2010, 10:21 am

    very good tips, I am fond of cooking a whole grain and the salad dressing tip. Even if someone makes dressing (or mixes good olive oil and lemon or vinegar) they can use this with a salad they may take out, it’s a spectrum. I feel batch cooking a huge tray of roasted veggies, boiling 6 eggs, making at least 1 whole grain a week saves many of my clients. Good post.