Drying, canning, freezing, baking and cooking are all forms of processing food that's good for you, writes Niki Bezzant.
The other night I ate a meal made almost entirely from processed foods.
I'm very comfortable saying that, which might raise an eyebrow. But when I say processed, I'm not talking about two-minute noodles washed down with fizzy drink. I think it's important to make a distinction between processed and processed; or more usefully, processed and what's come to be known as ultra-processed food.
My dinner was comprised of some very useful foods that had been processed in some way; a boon to people who are busy, or home late in the evening after a flight, as I was in this case. A packet of ready-steamed brown rice and quinoa; some frozen edamame beans; a bag of leafy greens and some leftover chicken, tossed together in a pan with a bit of soy sauce and chilli and dinner was ready in about 8 minutes. It was tasty, satisfying and I think pretty healthy. I could equally have tossed an egg in there instead of the chicken, or a bit of tofu (also processed) or a can of tuna (ditto).
These foods are examples of ingredients that are super useful when you have a full schedule, as most of us do these days, with the demands of work and family and social life. I always find it a bit judgmental when I see comments – often in the "wellness" space – deriding so-called processed foods. Most of us rely on a degree of processing, after all, in many foods we eat. Most of us don't have time or equipment to mill our own grains, bake our own bread, catch our own fish or make our own preserves, for example. We don't all have our own cows to milk. Many of us – myself included – live in apartment spaces with no outdoors, so we can't grow our own vegetables. The processing of these foods helps us feed ourselves and our families with safe, affordable and nourishing food. Don't forget drying, canning, freezing, baking and cooking are all forms of processing.
There are many processed foods that I wouldn't be without. Frozen veges and fruit – edamame and peas, especially, but also sweetcorn kernels and blueberries – are a way of enjoying produce at its peak goodness, all through the year. And it's good to know there's no nutritional difference between fresh and frozen produce.
Canned foods are super-useful, too; I love canned lentils, chickpeas and beans for a legume boost at a moment's notice. And like every Italian cook, I always keep a stock of canned tomatoes.
There are some innovations in packaging I'm a big fan of: the pre-cooked whole beetroot seems like a genius idea to me, and although I like to cook my own grains most of the time, the ready-steamed brown rice and other grains are brilliant in a time crunch.
The packaging is one aspect of processed foods that's not ideal. It's something more of us are seriously looking at as we seek to reduce our packaging waste. I'm hoping food manufacturers are working away furiously on this right now so that soon, much more of our food packaging will be sustainable; it would be amazing if we could do away with soft plastic recycling altogether, wouldn't it?
On the health front, there's another thing that sometimes comes up with canned and some plastic-packaged foods: the possibility of exposure to BPA (bisphenol-A). This is a chemical that's used in some plastic food packaging, and can be found in the lining of some cans. There's evidence that BPA from can linings can migrate into food. NZ Food Safety says at high levels, BPA can be hazardous because it weakly mimics the female hormone oestrogen. However, our intake of BPA is well below maximum safety limits; even the highest estimated dietary intake of BPA in New Zealand (0.0003mg/kg of body weight/day) is well below the European Commission's tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.05mg/kg body weight/day. If you're worried about BPA, look for BPA-free cans (several brands are now doing this) or products packaged alternatively, such as in glass.
So when nutrition types talk about avoiding processed foods, what do they mean? Really, they're talking about ultra-processed: the foods that are combinations of highly refined carbohydrates, sugar, salt and fat; the things we love but which most definitely do not love us back. There's emerging evidence that diets high in ultra-processed foods cause overeating and weight gain, even when the composition of the diet in terms of macronutrients is basically the same as an equivalent unprocessed diet. These foods mess with our eating behaviour in ways we don't fully understand yet – another reason to take advantage of the abundance of useful processed foods available to us, but also to choose with care.