In the face of these uncertain times, there has been quite a bit of widespread panic buying at our grocery and bulk stores.
Even though we’re not in a food shortage — or toilet paper shortage for that matter — the fear and anxiety spiking from this pandemic — causing self-isolation and shelter-in-place requests — causes us to want to stock up on food in order to feel safe, protect our well being, and maintain optimal nourishment.
While these are definitely good things to keep in mind, especially when it comes to our mental and bodily health, it’s still important to be careful about the types of foods we purchase.
Most foods created for a “long shelf life” contain an alarming amount of added sugar, sodium, preservatives, chemicals, and artificial ingredients. These ingredients have been found to be harmful and have been linked to a myriad of long and short term adverse side effects.
Alright, you want to stock up on whole, healthy foods, while also avoiding those harmful ingredients.
What’s the right answer?
Lucky for us, there are a few alternatives that will not only keep our pantry and fridge stocked for the long haul, but will also nourish our bodies far better than any processed food. Here are a few suggestions to help you out in these stressful and uncertain times!
Dangers of Processed Food
A processed food item is one that has been “significantly changed from [their] original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and/or artificial [colors].” Yet, this term — processed — also encompasses a broader range of food items. Per the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, processing a food item is defined “as the alteration of foods form the state in which they are harvested or raised to better preserve them and feed consumers.” This includes those precut, prewashed, and packaged veggies that you love so much, along with ultra-processed foods such as pop-tarts, lucky charms, and hot dogs.
Ultra-processed and processed foods have been linked to a long list of serious health conditions including an increased risk of heart disease, unwanted weight gain, increased risk of cancer, higher inflammation, increased risk of diabetes, and an overall negative impact on your lifespan.
Processed Ingredients to Avoid
While processed foods should be avoided for a myriad of reasons — including reduced nutrient value, empty calories, and higher sugar content — a huge issue that arises with these foods are the added ingredients that make them so processed and so long-lasting. Here are a few to avoid!
1. Added Sugar and Salt
There are natural sugars that live within raw foods — such as fruits, veggies, and grains — and then there are added sugars that are used in processed foods to both sweeten and preserve them. Added sugars “are the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing” and are empty calories, meaning they “add calories without adding nutrients.” These include high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, and sorghum syrup, to name just a few of the many names.
Added sugars have been linked to “obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,” all of which are caused by poor nutrition, weight gain, and increased triglycerides — a “type of fat in the bloodstream and fat tissue” which is a corresponding indicator of heart disease. On top of that, consuming moderate to large amounts of added sugars has been linked to tooth decay.
Another “natural” preservative is salt.
Salt or sodium chloride “is about 40% sodium and 60% chloride.” Yes, it’s a great flavoring for our food, but it’s also used as a binder, stabilizer, and preservative in many processed foods. While sodium is a crucial nutrient for our bodies — it helps to “conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals” — too much consumption has been linked to “high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke,” as well as “calcium losses, some of which may be pulled from bone.”
Regular consumption of processed foods can drastically raise your intake of sodium, increasing your risk of developing these health issues.
2. Chemical Preservatives
While we all may have that benign thought that sugar and salt are natural so they can’t be that bad, when it comes to those chemical preservatives there’s simply no working around the fact that you’re consuming an unnatural product.
There are “three classes of chemical preservatives commonly used in foods:” benzoates, — such as sodium benzoate — nitrites, — such as sodium nitrite, and sulfites — such as sulfur dioxide. Plus, you may also see sorbic acid, another chemical preservative. Chemical preservatives are used to … well … preserve our food by inhibiting “the activity of bacteria or [killing] the bacteria” altogether.
Chemical preservatives have been linked to a variety of health concerns including increased risk of colon, pancreatic cancer, and other cancers (via those nitrites and butylated hydroxyanisole), a higher risk of asthma and bronchitis (via those sulfites), damage to your bodies healthy bacteria, — which may lead to gastrointestinal issues — weakened heart tissues, — and obesity.
3. Artificial Flavoring and Coloring
Unfortunately, when it comes to artificial flavors and colors, you want to avoid them at all costs.
When it comes to artificial flavoring, going natural may not even be a great option. Per News Medical Life Sciences, “natural almond flavoring is a source of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, while no such chemical is present in the artificial almond flavoring.” Part of the issue is around safety concerns around these added ingredients, but the other issue is that “food flavorings do not add nutritional value to food products.”
Food coloring — referring to “any dye, pigment or other chemical substance added to an edible product in order to change or enhance its color” — is a lot harder to avoid as these dyes are used in food, drinks, as well as medicines and they can be sneakily labeled as “identical to nature,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they are natural. It’s also important to note that “nine dyes in wide use today in the US have been shown to be dangerous in some degree, by causing carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, or hypersensitivity.”
5 Safe Swaps for Stocked Processed Foods
Even though these are uncertain times, it doesn’t mean you have to stockpile uncertain and unhealthy foods. There are lots of alternative bulk food options that will fill your pantry, freezer, and fridge without breaking the bank.
For the sake of our ultra strange situation, we’re going to focus on avoiding ultra-processed and processed foods and replace those with unprocessed or minimally processed foods — “foods that only a few ingredients on the label— such as Almond Butter that has “almonds” as the ingredient — or straight raw foods — such as a bundle of kale or a bushel of apples. These foods should also have zero added sugars, flavoring, and chemicals.
1. Cooking and Freezing Bulk Fresh Foods
The easiest way to avoid processed foods is to set aside some time to prep your own food straight from those fresh veggies and fruits. While most of the United States is currently in an isolated or locked down state, it’s important to note two things: one, there is no food shortage in the United States, and two, grocery stores are essential businesses that have and will remain open.
Instead of buying processed, bagged, and frozen veggies and fruits, you can buy fresh fruits and veggies, bag or box them yourself, and freeze them. This is not only a cheaper option, but it also means that you’ll avoid those dangerous processed ingredients.
To help those veggies hold their color and texture, blanch them and cool them before freezing. This can be done by boiling, steaming, or microwaving. After you’re done blanching, “plunge the … vegetables immediately into a large quantity of cold water, 60ºF or below,” which can be achieved by prepping a bowl of water with ice beforehand. Drain your veggies, dry your veggies, and freeze your veggies!
Also, make sure to choose veggies that do well when reheated, which include asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, corn, spinach, and kale. Of course, you can pretty much freeze any type of veggie you’d like, just make sure to take the blanching steps beforehand.
2. Buy Bulk Dried Foods
This will include the average shelf life of the major groups including legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and recipes for prepping these foods for consumption, as well as best storage techniques
To avoid the added sugar, salt, and preservatives that generally make their way into canned and boxed foods, simply buy your veggies, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, pasta, dried fruits and herbs in bulk. Yes, I admit that making dried foods takes a bit more time and preparation then simply dumping out a can of beans into a bowl. Of course, avoiding those processed ingredients will increase your health and decrease a myriad of risk factors, so it’s definitely worth it!
Even though dried foods can last a long time even when not stored properly, to get the most bang for your buck, here are a few tips to make them last!
First, make sure to choose a “cool, dry and dark location” to store your dry food containers. Generally, you’ll want a space that stays around 60 degrees Fahrenheit without direct exposure to light. Second, choose a great container! The best containers will have a seal of some kind — think bell jars — or glass Tupperware. Finally, be aware of your expiration dates. For dried fruit and herbs, you’re looking at a year, while dried veggies last about six months. With that said, if you’ve got room in your freezer, you can extend that time exponentially.
Preparing your dried foods for consumption may be an entirely new process for you! Here are a few resources to get you started:
- The Ultimate Guide for Cooking Perfect Beans
- 10 Delicious Ways to Eat Lentils
- How to Cook the Perfect Brown Rice
- How to Cook Wheat Grains
3. Meal Delivery Services
While most of us need to cinch up our financial belts right now, if you can splurge on a meal delivery service, it may be a great option to help you avoid splurging on those processed foods instead.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has made it clear that there is currently “no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.” This means that meal delivery services are still considered safe and are a great option if you choose one that also provides your body nourishment.
With that said, the CDC goes on to say that “the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects,” therefore make sure to use clean utensils (preferably from your own house) and keep up with that hand washing before eating — yes, even in your own home!
To make myself clear, there is a difference between “take out” and “meal delivery.”
When it comes to meal delivery services, you can select from a variety of healthy options. This includes health-conscious, high-quality, and diet-specific companies. For instance, looking to go strictly vegan? Try out Purple Carrot, Daily Harvest, and Veestro. Are you buying for a household that includes a non-vegan, but still want to focus on those plant-based foods? Try Hungryroot, Green Chef, or Sun Basket.
It may not sound appealing as a regular meal, but protein shakes are a great way to nourish your body with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. Plus, most protein mixes are shelf-stable for a long period of time.
The first step is choosing your protein powder!
You can go the spendy route with a fancy vegan option such as Ka’Chava — a high-quality, whole-body meal — or mix in your own extras by choosing a simple protein powder — such as this Orgain Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder, this Garden of Life Meal Replacement Vanilla Powder, or this KOS Organic Plant-Based Protein Powder.
Once you’ve discovered your favorite protein powder jam, start creating!
Either purchase pre-made protein shakes — simply watch out for added sugar and preservatives in these — or blend up your own at home with fresh ingredients — such as this Pumpkin Protein Smoothie, this Power Smoothie with Fresh Almond Milk, this Superfood Protein Shake, or this Protein Rich Green Smoothie.
5. Choose Frozen and Canned Foods Wisely
Alright, so maybe none of the above options are the right fit for your situation and you’re definitely going the pre-packaged frozen and canned food route. While you may not be able to sidestep all of those unwanted ingredients, there are a few tips and tricks to finding the healthiest of these options.
First off, go with raw, whole, plain veggies and fruits.
Veggies that have been “peeled or that have had their skins removed prior to freezing” generally require a dose of sodium hydroxide preservative. Veggies that have been par-cooked prior to freezing — which helps them retain bright color — generally has a dose of sodium bicarbonate. On the package, look for these preservatives, along with sodium chloride — table salt — that is commonly used to “help maintain freshness.”Also, avoid seasoned veggies! Oftentimes, these “seasonings” are high-sodium and/or high sugar and “can overshadow the health benefits of frozen vegetables.”
For those canned food items always choose the organic, non-GMO, no sodium added, and no sugar added options. These labels should be upfront and center and easy to pick out! Also, avoid purchasing canned sauces or soups, which almost always contain preservatives of some kind.
When looking for brands, try 365 Everyday Value — such as these 365 Everyday Value No Salt Added Organic Black Beans or these 365 Everyday Value Frozen No Salt Added Organic Green Peas — or Cascadian Farms, — such as this Cascadian Farm Organic Non-GMO Premium Gardeners Blend or these Cascadian Farm Organic Non-GMO Garden Peas.
Learn How to Cook Plant-Based Meals at Home!
Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammation, heart health, mental wellbeing, fitness goals, nutritional needs, allergies, gut health and more! Dairy consumption also has been linked to many health problems, including acne, hormonal imbalance, cancer, prostate cancer and has many side effects.
For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.
Here are some great resources to get you started:
- Weekly Vegan Meal Plans
- Plant-Based Health Resources
- Plant-Based Food & Recipes
- Plant-Based Nutrition Resources
- The Ultimate Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition
- Budget-Friendly Plant-Based Recipes
- High Protein Plant-Based Recipes
- Plant-Based Meal Prep
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