Let’s face it – even though we know that a completely unprocessed whole food plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat, for many of us it’s unrealistic to avoid ALL processed and packaged foods.
We want to be successful with our plant-based lifestyle, so where do we draw the line? It can be tough to know sometimes. We want to eat well but we don’t want to drive ourselves crazy with perfectionism!
My hope is that this article will offer some helpful background and guidance about how to make those sometimes tricky dietary decisions. And just remember that as long as we’re doing our best, that’s all we can do, and what that looks like is going to vary from day to day.
Just What is Processed Food?
According to Cooking Light, processed food is “a food item that has had a series of mechanical or chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it.”
Processed food includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition by fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Most processed foods come in a box, carton, jar or bag. Some processing is downright unhealthy.
Take potato chips, Oreos, sugary sodas, oily microwave popcorn or even overly salted and oil-laden pasta sauces, for example. These are considered the most heavily processed types of foods.
SIDE NOTE: You might want to check out my list of whole foods from Trader Joe's. They offer many plant-based options that will also save you money.
How to Decide if a Food Is OK to Eat
Here’s a list of definitions to consider from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics when deciding if a food is ok to eat. These are listed in order of best to worst.
- Minimally processed foods such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit, and vegetables.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, colors, and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods such as crackers, granola, and deli meat are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
Become a Label Reader
The easiest way to determine if processed food is ok to eat is to become a label reader. This is a skill that you'll quickly get the hang of.
Nutrition labels can be very deceiving, and if you don't know what you need to look out for, you could end up buying food that's not as healthy as it might seem at first glance.
The list of ingredients on any label starts with food in the highest amount. If the list of ingredients is long, this is typically not a good sign, but do read through them to see if there’s any added, sugar, oil or additives.
Also, look at sodium and fiber as both are very important. Too many very long and complicated-sounding words may be a tip-off to avoid that item!
One important point - don’t be fooled by the large print and any claim on labels. If a packaged food says it’s “natural,” “low-fat” or “healthy,” be wary and check out the ingredients for yourself.
Food Additives in the Ingredient List
When you’re checking out the ingredient list look for food additives such as food coloring, flavorings, thickeners or emulsifiers. You may be familiar with some of these because many non-dairy plant milk contains emulsifiers.
For example, Target sells unsweetened almond milk with these ingredients: filtered water, almonds, calcium carbonate, sea salt, potassium citrate, sunflower lecithin, gellan gum, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2, D-alpha, tocopherol,
I recommend NOT eating emulsifiers such as gellan gum if you can avoid them. If you’d like to know more about them, here’s an article, “Emulsifiers: Friend or Foe?”
For more information about how to read a food label, read, “Packaged Food Primer: Learn What’s Really in Your Food.”
The 5-To-1 Fiber Rule
Plant-based pioneer Dr. Michael Greger has a 5-to-1 fiber ratio rule for calculating the fiber in packaged foods because he knows from the studies that increasing our fiber can lead to health improvements.
“As fiber intake goes up, the risk of metabolic syndrome appears to go down, with less inflammation and an apparent step-wise drop in obesity risk. It’s, therefore, no surprise that greater dietary fiber intake is associated with a lower risk of heart disease: There is a 9 percent lower risk for every additional 7 grams a day of total fiber consumed, which is just some rice and beans or a few servings of fruits and veggies.”
That’s good news, indeed. You’ll want to look at the ratio of grams of carbohydrates to grams of dietary fiber. Look for about five to one or less.
You can watch Dr. Greger’s video on how to make this easy calculation to learn more.
Also, check out this handy PDF provided by the government that gives very helpful tips on where to find fiber on a label as well as how to add more fiber to your diet.
The Good News
This may seem complicated, but here’s the good news – you don’t have to avoid all processed foods.
We’re aiming for food that is minimally processed at its peak to lock in nutritional quality. This includes frozen fruits and vegetables, bagged items in their fresh natural state such as salad greens and raw nuts, and foods that have very little added sugar, oil, salt or additives. (Roasted nuts without salt are fine, too. Choose dry roasted if you want to avoid the oil.)
If you purchase processed foods with whole ingredients and make sure you’re getting enough fiber, you’re doing better than most! It’ll get easier to spot these undesirable ingredients the more you practice label-reading.
For a list of recipes that use some of these minimally process foods, check out my article, “49 Plant-Based Vegan Recipe Using Canned and Packaged Foods.”
Minimally Processed Packaged Plant-Based Food List
Below is a general list of packaged foods that would be considered minimally processed because they are made with little or no oil, salt, sugar, or additives. These can be added to your weekly grocery list.
No Added Sugar, Salt or Oil
- Non-dairy milk
- Whole grain pasta, bread, crackers, cereal, tortillas
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
- Canned fruits and vegetables: applesauce, pasta sauce,
- Canned beans
- Tofu, tempeh, seitan, soy curls, some deli meat substitutes
- Nut butter
- Sauces & Flavorings: nutritional yeast, mustard, tamari, vanilla, cacao, & more
- Sweeteners: molasses, date sugar and syrup, coconut nectar