If you’re a busy urbanite, the chances that you’ve eaten only homemade food in the last few weeks are slim. Our busy lifestyles have made making our food from scratch all but impossible, and many of us depend on processed foods to get us through our day.
But processed food, to judge by what nutritionists say, is not very good to depend on. Almost all nutritional advice urges us to avoid it. The question is, why? And how? Can we really do it?
The real truth
Processed food is food that has been transformed by some technique from its fresh state into something that can last longer. “It is food that is not in its natural form,” explains Ritika Samaddar, chief dietician at Max Healthcare, Saket, Delhi. “It is any kind of food that has undergone some modification in order to retain or increase its life.”
Processed food is considered less healthy because it is no longer fresh and because a lot of its nutrients gets killed during the method of processing. But since we are faced with such a variety – ranging from juices, packaged milk, butter, cheese and oils to ready-to-eat meals, tinned food and pickles – it is difficult to avoid. And in fact, we need not avoid such foods completely, says Samaddar. “In many ways, processed food is unavoidable in today’s world,” she explains. “Instead of not eating anything for hours, with tinned food, you’re at least getting something in your system.”
Whether a certain processed food is healthy or not depends on what exactly is done to the food during processing, says Samaddar. Mostly, adds Brunch columnist Shikha Sharma, it depends on how many of its original attributes are kept. “It’s important that key nutrients are maintained, and that fibre isn’t taken away,” she emphasises.
The only way to know what’s in your favourite packaged food is to check nutrition labels. Keep an eye out for trans-packed sugar, sodium, and the use of colours. Trans-packed items are dangerous, says Samaddar. But in general, she adds, ISO-branded products can be trusted.
“Today, almost every corporate has a nutritionist on its panel,” says Samaddar. “There’s a lot of care being taken in terms of what elements are being added to it. For instance, today you have healthier options like noodles made of atta, digestive biscuits, juices without preservatives, and so on.” Still, according to Samaddar, the nutrients in processed foods are at least 50 per cent less than in natural foods.
Shikha Sharma says it’s a good idea to maintain a balanced ratio between natural and processed foods. “The ideal ratio should be 70:30,” she adds. If you find that your balance is tipping towards processed foods, add fresh vegetables and produce to the packaged food you’re eating. So, if you’re eating packaged soup or noodles, add stir-fried fresh vegetables, paneer and / or chicken.