The answer to the question of healthier processed foods will be based on how you define "healthier." If your definition is simply a processed food that contains a smaller quantity of an unwanted component, or more of a wanted one, then no doubt there are many "healthier" processed foods – and no doubt, too, consumers are flocking to them. But are they truly healthier?
A recent survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute in conjunction with Rodale and Prevention explored shoppers' attitudes toward more healthful eating. Looking at the data, it would appear as if the survey's definition of what constitutes healthful differs from mine. The survey suggests that healthy eating involves foods that are "organic," or "with no artificial ingredients" or fortified "with enhanced nutritional components."
The report shows that shoppers are buying healthier foods with labels such as: vegetarian, no-fat, sugar-free, whole-grain, multigrain, low-fat low-sodium, natural, soy-based, gluten-free and no high-fructose corn syrup. But are the foods these front-of-package claims help to sell really healthier, or would they be more fairly described as "less bad?"
[Read: Is All Processed Food Unhealthy?]
The notion that healthful eating can be navigated by means of the presence or absence of specific nutrients seems intuitive; it's just that to date it hasn't proven itself to be true. At the end of the day, what we know to be true about healthful eating is far less specific than today's front-of-package claims might lead you to believe.
Simply put, we know that certain dietary patterns of whole foods consumption confer benefit. We know that diets rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and nuts are protective against a variety of chronic diseases, while diets rich in trans-fats, refined carbohydrates and processed meats are riskier.
[See: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]
And while we do indeed have some theories as to those components of whole foods that provide benefits or risks, we're nowhere near the point of drilling it down into specific vitamins, minerals or phytochemical compounds.
According to the survey, the barriers most commonly cited by shoppers against eating more healthfully include cost, motivation, difficulty in changing habits, too much conflicting information, taste and time. Looking to these so-called healthier processed foods, many of these barriers make a great deal of sense. "Healthier" versions of processed foods almost invariably cost more, don't taste as good and are often confusingly contradictory in their messaging (Does the presence of "whole grains" really make Froot Loops a healthful choice?).
The survey also reports that nearly three-quarters of shoppers reported reading food labels for ingredients and "other product information." Well, here's a crazy thought. Perhaps food-label reading has become a barrier in and of itself to eating more healthfully; these days, the jobs of food labels seem to be to dupe consumers into believing that boxes of heavily processed food with a vitamin or two or a few grams of whole grains are suddenly healthful choices.
You know which foods don't need front-of-package claims? The foods that research has thus far identified as being healthful – fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, etc.
To be clear, in my home we aren't nutritional puritans, and we most assuredly do buy and eat some processed foods. We're not scared of "chemicals," we don't go out of our way to eat "organic," and we aren't folks who would have you believe that kale chips taste as good as real ones. We simply try to do our own personal best and, in so doing, we try to eat and serve those foods – actual foods – with a healthy evidence base behind them as often as we can.
[Read: Is Organic Food Better?]
If you want to improve the health of your home's cooking, the evidence to date would have you do some actual home cooking, where cooking isn't mixing a box of this with a jar of that. Instead, buy foods without packaging and package them together in preparing your meal, ideally with the help of your family. And enjoy the meal around a table together. But don't take a flying leap at this. Don't try to change everything all at once – let your kitchen, like ours, evolve. And, finally remember: If a box, bag or jar needs to tell you its contents are healthful, they're more likely to simply be less bad than actually good for you.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.