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Is it OK to eat processed foods?

head shot of Sue on a background collage of grocery cart

In short, the answer is YES! As Registered Dietitians, we believe that all foods can be part of a healthy diet, in sensible amounts. But there are actually different categories of processed foods, and some are better choices than others. Let’s break it down.

When you hear the term “processed foods”, you may automatically think of foods that come in a box or package. There’s more to the term “processed foods” though. Scientists at the School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil developed a classification system called NOVA (it’s not an acronym) that groups foods into 4 different categories depending on the extent of the processing:

  1. Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods:

Unprocessed foods have not undergone any changes whatsoever. Some examples are fresh fruit and veggies as well as plain unseasoned fish and meats. Minimally processed foods are essentially unprocessed foods that have been cleaned, dried, ground, pasteurized, fermented or frozen. No oils, fats, sugars, salt or other substances have been added to the original food. Dried fruit, frozen veggies, dried beans, dried herbs and ground spices are just a few examples of minimally processed foods. Both unprocessed and minimally processed foods should from the foundation of a healthy, balanced diet.

  1. Processed Culinary Ingredients:

    These are oils, fats, salt and sugars. These ingredients have been extracted from whole foods using processes such as pressing, grinding, refining and crushing. Vegetable oils for example are made from crushed seeds, nuts and fruit. Table sugar and molasses are obtained from sugarcane or sugar beet. Maple syrup is extracted from maple trees, and sea salt is mined from sea water. 

  1. Processed Foods:

    These are unprocessed foods with added oils, fats, salt or sugars. Most processed foods have just 2 or 3 ingredients. Some examples are salted nuts, smoked fish, fruit packed in syrup, pickled veggies, and homemade / bakery-made bread. These foods can still be enjoyed as part of an overall healthy diet. 

  1. Ultra-processed Foods:

    Most ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat products would be considered as ultra-processed foods. These are foods that are made by a series of processes and have extra ingredients such as oils, fats, salt, sugars, additives, colours, flavours, emulsifiers and thickeners. Some examples are cake mixes, packaged pasta dishes, frozen entrées, reconstituted meat products and seasoned packaged snacks. While these foods can be convenient, enjoy them occasionally and in sensible amounts.

Do you have a question about food or nutrition? Ask us (info@NutritionForNonNutritionists.com) and we’ll answer it in a future blog!

Ask the Dietitian: Is there any nutritional benefit to coconut sugar or date sugar?

Coconut sugar (Istock)

Date sugar (Bing)

You may have seen recipes that say ingredients like coconut sugar and date sugar contribute nutritional benefits. Although there are a few elements in these sugars that make them different from regular sugars, in reality, coconut sugar and date sugar are almost identical to regular cane sugar in terms of nutrients and calories. Both consist mainly of sugars, which are simple carbohydrates. Diabetes Canada states sugars may be eaten in moderation by people with diabetes but there is no advantage to those with diabetes in using one type of sugar over another.

Coconut sugar is also called palm sugar and comes from the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm. Coconut sugar may contain some trace minerals found in the coconut palm like iron, zinc, magnesium and B-Vitamins.  These nutrients support good health, but coconut sugar does not contain enough of them per serving to offer a measurable benefit. Coconut sugar also contains inulin, a type of soluble fibre. Fibre is a more complex type of carbohydrate and it slows down the absorption of the sweetener which is linked to a lower risk of blood sugar spikes.  Coconut sugar may impart a nutty flavor and is recommended as a substitute for brown sugar in food preparation.

Date sugar is simply dried dates ground into a fine powder. Date sugar has the trace nutrients found in whole dates, including potassium, calcium, and antioxidants. The fibre in a teaspoon of date sugar is nutritionally insignificant. The main drawback to date sugar is that it doesn’t melt or dissolve completely in water, so its uses are somewhat limited. Replacing brown sugar in recipes, such as banana bread and bar cookies, or sprinkling some on yogurt or fruit are suggested uses.

Bottom line: If you prefer to use coconut sugar or date sugar, go ahead and enjoy it. But remember it’s really just like eating another type of sugar. It provides just as many calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar: about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon. All added sugars should only be used in moderation. Speak to a dietitian about your personal nutrition questions.

Sources: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Today’s Dietitian, Diabetes Canada

Ask a Dietitian – What’s the Difference between Free Run and Free Range Eggs?

Small headshot of Sue Mah over-layed on a background of brown and white eggs. The Ask a Dietitian question is typed within a green box.

This is such a common question, thanks for asking us!

Eggs are a nutrient-packed food, and with so many choices these days, it can be confusing to know what they all mean.

Free run and free range describe the type of housing for the hens which laid the eggs.

Free run eggs come from hens that roam the entire barn floor, and some of these barns may have multi-tired aviaries.

Free range eggs come from hens that also roam the entire barn floor. And when the weather permits, the hens also have access to outdoors.

You may have seen these other types of eggs at the grocery store too:

Organic eggs come from hens which are raised free range and they’re also fed a certified organic feed.

Omega-3 eggs are nutritionally-enhanced or vitamin-enhanced eggs. The hens were fed a special diet with certain nutrients or ingredients (such as flaxseed), so that their eggs actually contain higher amounts of these healthy omega-3 fats.

Whichever eggs you choose, know that they all contain essential nutrients such as protein, iron, folate, choline, vitamin A and vitamin D.

What would you like to ask a dietitian? Comment below or send us an email, and we’ll answer it in a future blog.

 

– By Sue Mah, MHSc, RD, PHEc, FDC