Busy lives can breed bad health habits, lack of sleep, failure to exercise regularly – and a tendency to eat processed and convenience foods. A growing number of products on supermarket shelves cater to people who fall into this category.


For a long time we have heard that heavily processed meats and preservative-filled junk foods are unhealthy – and this makes sense – but there is a new generation of processed foods claiming to supply vital nutrients that may be missing from the time-starved consumer’s diet. Such products include muesli and processed fruit bars, fruit and vegetable juices and other products with boosted vitamin and mineral content.

The trouble with processing
Many processed ‘health’ foods have a high energy density, yet they aren’t as filling or satisfying as fresh foods. For example, compare the feeling of fullness and satisfaction you get from eating a whole piece of fruit to that of eating a ‘fruit strap’.

Another potential risk is missing out on some of the unique components found in a natural whole food source – naturally found compounds and antioxidants – which it may not be possible to bottle or package. The Australian Dietary Guidelines stipulate that we should enjoy five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day. These portions are strictly defined: one serve of fruit means one medium-sized fruit such as an apple or pear or two pieces of smaller fruits like apricots or passionfruit, one and a half tablespoons of dried fruit or four dried apricots, or half a cup of fruit juice. One serve of vegetables is the equivalent of half a cup of cooked vegetables, a cup of fresh salad or a medium potato.

Accredited practising dietician Maria Packard is adamant about these definitions. “The guidelines do not include muesli bars and fruit roll-ups,” she says.  A number of changes take place in fruit and vegetables when they are processed, some of which remove important nutrients. “Physical properties undergo the most dramatic change – this includes changes in texture and colour compared to fresh forms,” Packard says.

“Cooking can also cause changes in the chemical composition, which can influence the concentration of bioactive compounds (like antioxidants), vitamins and minerals. For the significant carbohydrate-containing fruit and vegetables, the type and amount of processing the food has undergone can affect its glycaemic index value (the rate at which the food is digested), which may influence factors such as the feeling of fullness and reduced hunger.”

Along with nutrient loss from processing and additives, we need to keep in mind that there are many things that can happen during the growing, harvesting, storing and preparation of food that can affect its nutritional value. Freezing and artificial ripening of fruit and vegetables, for example, can have an impact on their nutrient content.
Packard points out that some vitamins are less affected by processing than others. The water-soluble vitamins (particularly vitamin C and the B group) are less stable than the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), and can be destroyed by processing. It is therefore advisable to source water-soluble vitamins from fresh foods such as tomato, spinach and broccoli.

No added value

Eating wisely is not just a matter of consuming all the right nutrients – it’s about avoiding nasty additives too. The identifiable bad additives are, commonly, sugar, fat and salt, but the range of food additives listed on processed products is never-ending and often indecipherable to the consumer, consisting of preservatives, colourings and flavourings, each with their own allocated number.

“Preservatives are often added to processed foods if the shelf life of the product needs to be extended,” Packard says. “Because processing can alter the texture and flavour of food, ingredients may need to be added to make the food more palatable to the consumer in terms of taste and looks. So it’s a good habit to read your food labels to check what the product really contains and to help you make informed decisions about the product.”

Pros and cons
The biggest risk for consumers in eating processed ‘health’ foods is the tendency to believe the hype on the front of the pack. Turn the pack around and get into the habit of reading the nutrition information panel.
Don’t be misled into thinking you are leading a healthy lifestyle because a product is full of added omega-3, for example, which is naturally found in fish. It may be better to enjoy a serve of fresh fish and vegetables, and to know what you’re getting (lots of vitamins and minerals) without the hidden extras.

This doesn’t mean completely foregoing the convenience of packaged and processed foods.
“We can still pack non-perishable healthy foods such as nuts, dried fruit, tinned fruit and canned vegetables,” Packard says. “Look for canned vegetables that are salt reduced or without added salt.”

Canned fruit should be packed in natural fruit juice or water rather than sweetened juice, syrups or sugary jellies.
“Check the labels and choose the healthier options, which tend to have a total fat content of less than or equal to 5g per 100g and a sodium content of less than or equal to 300mg per 100g.

“Frozen vegetables can provide as many nutrients as fresh vegetables because they are frozen and packed very quickly after harvest and are an excellent alternative when some fresh vegetables are out of season or for convenience.”

Nature, ultimately, knows best. “Food manufacturers are yet to come up with a way to completely package whole fresh fruit and vegetables in their natural state so that they retain their maximum nutritional value and unaltered health boosting compounds,” Packard says. “It’s how Mother Nature uniquely packages food that gives fresh produce a winning edge.”