Recently I was asked to speak on a panel at the Sugar Summit. This is a yearly meeting in Westminster aimed that brings together different stakeholders, from government, to charities, manufacturers, retailers, to talk about improving the the choices, policy and food environment around foods low in free sugars. This was an event organised by Sugar Wise who have a certification in place on processed foods. If you see this label on a food it is low in free sugars:
Being surrounded by food manufacturers one of the topics we discussed was processed foods.
1. Are all processed foods the same?
There seems to be a common misconception that processed foods are all bad and should all be avoided. Yet actually I don’t see that as true. Processed foods include frozen vegetables, fruit, tinned fish, cheese and bread. Food processing includes canning, freezing, baking and drying. So we really can’t get away from eating processed foods and we don’t actually need to. Food processing is something that has gone on since the start of the human race. There has always been a way of preserving foods. The issue now has become that some processed foods have become high fat, high sugar foods, foods to be eaten in smaller quantities and in moderation.
2. Should all processed foods be avoided?
Whilst the media/social media may give out the impression that processed foods are to be avoided at all costs, this is a very sweeping statement and pretty impossible to do. Tinned tomatoes, bread products, yoghurt and milk are all foods we eat regularly. Are they foods we need to avoid? Instead of avoiding processed foods, how about we see the processing of foods as essential and helpful. It makes food accessible and affordable. Suddenly vegetables can be kept in the freezer, out of season fruit is available all year round and a meal can be prepped in minutes out of the store cupboard. There are certainly some improvements that need to be made to some types of processed foods and this is where our focys needs to be. Working with food manufacturers, encouraging reformulation of sauces, biscuits, cereals and sweet foods is a great move.
3. Can processed foods actually be healthier?
Some processed foods are fortified with micronutrients that can improve their nutritional profile. Think breakfast cereals and plant based milks, margarines and flour. These foods can provide an important source of nutrients for people who may otherwise end up deficient. Frozen foods such as vegetables, fruit, beans and fish are processed and frozen fast, which means they can be better than the fresh versions which may have travelling large distances and be stored for some time.
All in all I think there is no way we can avoid all processed foods. Instead it is about being selective with the ones that we eat regularly. Check the label to see what has been added and compare to alternative brands. There are often reduced salt and sugar options that are better choices.
I’d love to hear your views.