Tips on navigating processed foods

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As busy as we are, Kaiser Permanente registered dietitian Bethany Harris says, it can be hard to make good food choices.

"So, a lot of times we hear, don't eat processed foods, you can't have processed foods," Harris says.  "But, a lot of times, that is unrealistic, because, you know, that's what a lot of our foods are."

Still, Harris says, there are different degrees of processing, starting with lightly-processed foods,

"Like, for example, taking a whole carrot, shaving it down, cutting it up and then selling it in the store," she says.  "That is technically processed.

Next, there are foods with added seasonings, like sugar and salt.

"Then, we get to the really highly processed (foods)," Harris says.  "That is where we are putting in stuff that wouldn't naturally be found anywhere, that normally wouldn't be found in cooking.    That's where you see that laundry list of ingredients that most of us can't pronounce the name of."

Those extra ingredients, especially the added sugar and salt have been linked to lots of health problems.

So, Harris says, limit ultra-processed foods as much as you can.

"Potato chips, those are (highly processed) ones," she says.  "Candy.  There is really nothing natural in candy.  Sodas, or sugary drinks.  Again, there is nothing really natural in those."

If you're short on time, she says, it's okay to buy processed foods.

But, Harris says, choose the healthiest, or least processed, option you can find.

"It's better to get fresh chicken, beef or pork, as opposed to getting that stuff that is really broken down," say says. "Most of us don't even really know what's in a hot dog."

To find out just how processed your food may be, Harris says, read the list of ingredients.

"If it's a whole long list, you want to try to put it back, and pick out one that has a lot less," she says.

Check the food label for added sugar and salt.

If you choose a canned vegetable, go for the low-sodium version.

"We want to, as much as we can, try to stay as close to the whole form as we can get," Harris says. "People want to hate on potatoes, but having a baked potato is much healthier than having french fries or potato chips."