Most foods sold in the markets today are processed to some degree before we consume them. While some are minimally processed, there are other which are put through intensive processing. So, while frozen fish, frozen fruits, dried herbs, and pasteurized milk are some of the least processed food items, pre-packaged meals, bacon, sausage, and breakfast cereals undergo more processing. If you have a habit of reaching out for those nicely packaged foods placed attractively on supermarket shelves, then you must be more aware of processed foods and how it impacts your body. Here are some common questions answered.

What are the different types of processed foods?

The most commonly processed foods that you will find in the market are as follows:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cheese
  • Vegetables that are canned or tinned
  • Breads
  • Savoury snacks like pastries, pies, cakes, sausage rolls, and more
  • Products made of meat like bacon, ham, sausages, salami, and more
  • Foods that are prepared in the microwave or ready to eat foods i.e., convenience foods.
  • Biscuits and cakes
  • Aerated drinks like soft drinks, juices
  • Namkeens, chips

Are all processed foods unhealthy?

No, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Few food products even require to be processed to be safe for consumption, and are called healthy processed foods. A good example is milk. The bacteria present in the milk needs to be killed, and therefore it needs to be pasteurized before drinking. Also, to make oil, seeds are pressed using an equipment/device, which is a kind of processing, but essential. However, some of the processed foods are unhealthy, as they contain excess salt, added sugars and saturated fats. These additions make such foods more attractive, tasty and increase their shelf life.

However, uncontrolled consumption of these types of processed foods can result in lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and so on.

What should I know about processed foods and my children's diet?

  • It is usually not wise to buy processed foods high in sugar and salt for toddlers. Excessive consumption of the same can lead to conditions like excess weight, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart-related conditions in the future.
  • It is important to read the label of any food product before buying it for children, so that you can check the level of processing and also the amounts of sugars, salt and fats.

Why should processed foods be eaten in moderation?

Here is a list of processed foods that should be eaten in moderation, especially when it comes to children.

  • Sugary drinks and aerated beverages: Sugary drinks simply add on to the calorie intake and have no nutritional value. When consumed in excess, sodas and colas can cause childhood obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and insulin resistance.
  • Pizzas: The pizza dough is made of refined carbohydrates and the cheese adds on to the calorie intake. Hence, pizzas are alright as occasional treats.
  • White bread: It is made of refined carbohydrates, and the fibre content is low, which can lead to spikes in the blood sugar level.
  • Fruit juices: Though natural fruit juices are packed with antioxidants, artificial or packaged ones contain lots of added sugar with very low or zero fibre content. Consuming whole fruits is a better idea.
  • Breakfast cereals that are sweetened: For making breakfast cereals more appetizing and tasty, these grains are shredded, roasted, rolled, or flaked. However, this processing doesn’t hamper the nutritional value much. The high amounts of added sugar in these cereals can be harmful though.
  • Pastries, cookies and cakes: They contain refined flour, refined sugar, and added fats. Sometimes, they are even high in trans-fats that are not healthy. The shortening used in baked items is a good example. There might be preservatives added too, which have no nutrients.
  • French fries and potato chips: Potatoes are definitely healthy. But the same cannot be said when they are served as French fries or potato chips, especially the ones bought from restaurants and stores. They are high in calories as they are deep fried. These food products also contain higher amounts of carcinogenic substances, which are formed when potatoes are fried, baked, or roasted.
  • Low-carbohydrate junk foods: Though these kinds of foods are low in carbohydrates, they might be processed extensively. For example, low-carbohydrate candy bars and some meal replacements are highly processed and contain additives.
  • Candy bars: They are rich in sugar, refined flour, and fats that are processed. And they don’t contain any essential nutrients.
  • Processed meats: Such meats might contain harmful preservatives as well as excess salt, and can increase the risk of some cancers.
  • Caffeinated drinks: These are usually loaded with cream, sugar, syrups, and additives, which are full of empty calories.
  • Margarine: It is high in trans fats, which are not healthy. Trans fats tend to increase bad cholesterol level and can lead to heart ailments and strokes.

Healthier Alternatives

While fast foods might not be healthy, they are tasty, and hence difficult to completely eliminate from your child’s diet. However, make sure that your child consumes these moderately, to minimise the harmful effects. You can also try these healthy tips:

  • Instead of ice creams, provide your child yogurt, homemade sorbets or smoothies made with fresh fruits.
  • Deep-fried chicken can be replaced with baked or grilled options, which can reduce the fat consumption.
  • In place of donuts or pastries, you can bake cakes or muffins at home and control the butter and sugar used.
  • Instead of potato chips, give your kids vegetable chips that are baked.
  • Encourage your child to drink plain water, homemade lemonade, coconut water, and unsweetened lassi, instead of sodas and colas.
  • Opt for whole-grain bread instead of white bread, to give your child more fibre.
  • Instead of sweetened breakfast cereals, opt for those which are high in fibre and have low added sugar or zero sugar. You can make such cereals tasty with fruits.
  • Replace candy bars with whole fruits or sometimes dark chocolate as a treat.
  • Instead of processed cheese, opt for feta, mozzarella, or cottage cheese.

The above information and tips can help you make your child’s diet as healthy as possible. There are many alternatives to heavily-processed foods, and hence, ensuring taste and nutrition without resorting to unhealthy options is easy.