Are processed foods really nutrient deficient? Answers to some frequently asked questions on processed foods..

“Processed foods are unhealthy” is an oft-quoted statement. The qualms are quite valid, because it is a fact that we cannot consume many foods without actually ‘processing' them. In India, we often bring home raw and semi-processed foods, process them further before making them suitable for consumption. In fact, processing is needed to preserve certain perishable foods like milk, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables. Food processing increases the (un)seasonal availability of foods and enables transfer, transportation and distribution over long distances. This FAQ helps solve the issue of whether processed foods are nutrient deficient.

What exactly are processed foods?

Processed foods, in simple words, are those subjected to technological modifications to preserve or convert into ready-to-eat foods, eliminating laborious procedures. For example, ready mixes, dehydrated foods, pasta products, canned foods, confectioneries, bakery foods, dairy products...

Why are they under the scanner?

There is an increased demand for processed, ready-to-eat or convenience foods because of lifestyle changes. Consumers are looking for foods that need less preparation time. With obesity and associated non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases on the rise, processed foods are under the scanner.

Are all processed foods unhealthy?

Not all processed foods are necessarily devoid of nutrients. Unhealthy or ‘junk' foods are those that contain little or no proteins, vitamins or minerals but are rich in salt, sugars, fats and are high in energy (calories). Therefore, these are called unhealthy or junk, even if it is unprocessed.

The contribution of processed foods in terms of essential nutrients depends on the type of processing, the frequency of use, and the quantity consumed. Foods processed with refined flours, fats, salt or sugars are calorie dense. They tend to lack dietary fibre and micronutrients like minerals and vitamins. Frequent consumption or virtual replacement of meals with these foods coupled with inadequate physical activity/sedentary lifestyle leads to weight gain and associated health risks. Thus, caution needs to be exercised when processed foods form a major part of the meal.

Are there any alternatives?

Traditional breakfast items like idli, khichdi, dosa and roti are richer sources of nutrients as they combine different groups of nutrients. Food items like chips, candies, chocolates, which are popular among children, lack important nutrients and provide only empty calories. They also contain artificial colours and other additives.

Also remember processed vegetables and fruit-based foods cannot be equated with fresh vegetables and fruits. Apart from less nutrients, such processed foods also contain various additives that, if consumed beyond permissible limits, may have adverse effects on health.

Thus, consumption of certain processed foods not only affects intake of nutrients, but also increases the risk of exposure to various chemical additives. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that intake of a nutritionally balanced diet is not compromised by an unwise intake of unhealthy processed and convenience foods.

The writer is with the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.