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What About Processed Foods?

Are processed foods healthy? The following information will help you decide.

Nashville, Ark. – Processed foods are showing up more and more on grocery store shelves and freezer sections. Open a package, add just a few ingredients and voila you have a meal. Who doesn’t love the convenience and ease of preparation? Sometime called package meals they are popular with busy families and even those who don’t want the fuss of preparing meals from scratch. However, are they healthy?

            Processed foods have been around for several years. Hot dogs, lunch meats, frozen pizzas and “tv dinners” are those you may be familiar with. In the past few years, meal kits which have done much of the work such as cleaning and chopping vegetables and meats have grown in popularity. Processed foods can be found in breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals. They can also be found in snacks. According to research, what was once thought as a contributor to the obesity epidemic and the role processed foods play in weight gain, is for real.

            In a tightly controlled lab study, scientists found that people ate more calories and gained more weight when they spent two weeks on a highly processed diet, compared to a diet of whole foods. Whole foods are those that are fresh and usually need some preparation. Examples are fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and meats.

            Why did people gain more weight on processed foods? The obvious answer is most processed foods have more sugar, sodium, and fat that whole foods.

            In the study, groups were given the same number of calories, and similar amounts of sugar, fat, carbs, and fiber. The volunteers would spend two weeks on each diet. When on the processed diet, researchers found the volunteers would choose to eat more, about an extra 500 calories per day, on average. They also gained about 2 pounds. On the whole foods diet, they lost about 2 pounds. So why the difference?

            One theory suggests that people on processed foods ate faster than those on whole food diets. Whenever people eat fast, the stomach and brain does not have time to realize the full sensation, which makes it easy to overeat. Also, most processed foods do not typically provide enough fiber. Fiber helps the stomach stay full longer.

            In fact, many successful diets, recommend eating slowly. Strategies such as putting your fork down between bites and chewing your food properly are encouraged. Processed foods do not require a lot of chewing effort. Another explanation could be that while the diets contained the same amount of total sugar, the processed one had more added sugars.

            In the study a typical breakfast included a bowl of sweetened breakfast cereal and a packaged muffin with margarine, or an English muffin with egg, bacon and processed cheese, plus packaged tater tots. The minimally processed breakfast included Greek yogurt or oatmeal with fresh fruit and nuts; or eggs with hash browns made from fresh potatoes.

            Dinner on the processed diet was packaged ravioli with processed cheese and white bread, or canned chili with store-bought tortilla chips and salsa. Dinner on the minimally processed menu featured foods such as beef, whole-grain barley, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

            This study suggests that a healthy diet is not only about nutrients. It’s also about eating foods that are prepared from scratch and limiting those processed foods.

            While eating processed food may save time in the kitchen, there are plenty of healthy meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. Having the skills to prepare healthy meals is a must.

            The Howard County Extension Service helps people learn basic food preparation skills through hands-on learning. If you are interested in learning how to cook from “scratch” contact the Howard County Extension Service and sign up for our newsletter mailing list. You will receive firsthand information on workshops and programs being conducted to teach cooking skills. Contact the Extension Office at 870-845-7517 for more information.

Recipe of the Week

            If you are fortunate enough to have bell peppers in your garden, chances are you have an abundance of them. Here is a great way to use them that doesn’t take a lot of time. While this recipe does use a processed food (instant rice) it is healthy and tastes great!

Stuffed Bell Peppers

1 pound lean ground turkey*

1/3 cup finely chopped onion

1 (15 ounce) can no salt added tomato sauce (divided)

¼ cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

½ cup uncooked instant rice

4 medium green peppers

            Crumble turkey into a 1 ½ quart microwave safe bowl; add the onion. Cover and microwave on high for 3-4 minutes or until meat is browned; drain.

            Stir in ½ can of tomato sauce, water, salt, and pepper. Cover and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes. Stir in rice; cover and let stand for 5 minutes.

            Cut off tops of bell peppers. Remove seeds carefully keeping pepper intact. Fill peppers with meat mixture. Place in an ungreased, microwave safe, shallow, baking dish. Spoon remaining tomato sauce over peppers; cover and microwave on high for 12-15 minutes or until peppers are tender. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition Information per Serving: 260 calories, total fat 7g, protein 24g, carbohydrate 24g, fiber 3g, sodium 410mg. Excellent source of iron and vitamin C. Good source of vitamin A.

*Note: You may substitute lean ground beef for the ground turkey

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
421 N. Main St, Nashville AR 71852
(870) 845-7517


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