Rationale: Processed foods being rich in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives may pose a health risk if consumed regularly
There is an increased demand for processed, ready-to-eat and convenience foods due to changes in lifestyle. As more and more women go to work outside, and families have become nuclear, consumption of processed foods, particularly in urban areas, will be on the increase. Today's consumer is looking for convenient, easy-to-cook, and ready-to-eat foods which require less time to prepare than traditional home-cooked foods. Food processing is must to preserve highly perishable products like milk, meat, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. Food processing increases the seasonal availability of foods and enables easy transportation and distribution over long distances.
Processed foods are generally consumed either as part of a meal, or as a snack item. Their contribution in terms of essential nutrients depends on the type of processing and fortification, the frequency of use, and the quantity consumed. Processed foods are generally refined and a majority of them are rich in fat or in salt/sugar, and are calorie dense. They lack dietary fibre and micronutrients. Thus, caution needs to be exercised when processed foods constitute a major part of the meal.
Breakfast cereals are increasingly being used in urban areas. Traditional breakfast items like idli, dosa, upma and roti are rich sources of nutrients. Puffed and parched rice products (eg. flaked rice) besides being crisp and tasty, are easily digestible. Food items like chips, candies, peppermints, chocolates, etc., which are popular among children, are considered as unhealthy since, they provide only empty calories often containing artificial colors and other additives. Their use should be discouraged.
Instant foods are those, which undergo special processing designed to dissolve or to disperse particles more rapidly in a liquid than the untreated product. For instance, instant noodles, soup powders, cornflakes fall under this category. Although all instant foods need not be unhealthy in terms of high calorie or salt contents, there are concerns about the presence of certain additives like monosodium glutamate, which may also add up to the over-all sodium intake from the foods.
Fast foods are foods already made or cooked to order within minutes for consumption like noodles, burgers, fried fish, milk shakes, chips, salads, pizzas, sandwiches, etc. Storage, handling and microbiological contamination are the major concerns. Further they are calorie dense foods.
Street foods comprises of a wide range of ready-to-eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors and hawkers, especially on streets and other public places. Idly, Wada, Dosa, Chat Items etc are examples of street foods. They may be contaminated with pathogenic organisms unless hygienically prepared.
Unhealthy foods are those containing little or no proteins, vitamins or minerals but are rich in salt, sugar, fats and are high in energy (calories). Some examples are chocolates, artificially flavored aerated drinks, potato chips, ice creams, french fries etc.
Frequent consumption of unhealthy processed food increases calorie intake without providing any nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Apart from being non-nutritious, processed foods also contain food additives. Food additives consumed beyond permissible limits may have adverse effects on health. The national food regulatory authorities periodically review these limits. Thus, consumption of processed foods may not only affect intake of nutrients, but in addition, increase the risk of exposure to various chemical additives. In the coming years, with larger constraints on time at home, demand for processed foods is certain to increase. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that intake of a nutritionally balanced diet is not compromised with unwise intake of various processed and convenience foods. Processed vegetables and fruits available in the market are no match to nutrient rich fresh vegetables and fruits.
Sugars occur both naturally and as an ingredient in many foods. They are present in natural foods like fruits, vegetables, milk and honey. Added sugars provide taste and texture to foods. Sugar is present in processed foods like chocolates, jams, ice-creams and soft drinks. The most familiar sugar is sucrose. Refined or table sugar (sucrose) provides “empty calories”. Foods such as cakes, pastries, confectionery and sweets often have high amounts of fat, and sugar, and are prepared with refined cereals. Excess consumption of sugary foods may lead to obesity and elevated blood lipids. Children overindulging in chocolates and candies are prone to dental carries. For prevention of diet-related chronic diseases, sugars and refined cereals should be sparingly used.