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Are All Packaged Foods Bad for Our Health?

For years, consumption of packaged foods has been on the decline. After decades of growth, the mountains of evidence stacked against consumption of processed foods as opposed to fresh food was just too much to ignore. However, all this changed in the spring of 2020, for reasons that initially had nothing to do with health or nutrition.

U.S. packaged food companies’ retail sales grew by 15-30% on average during March to May of 2020. This massive shift in eating patterns was due in large part to quarantine measures and social distancing practices in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, even with fresh food readily available again, packaged food consumption still remains high. In fact, the canned fish industry recorded record sales in June, and even pizza delivery continues at a record-setting pace. 

Nutritionists across the country are rightfully alarmed about this profound change in Americans’ eating habits. But surprisingly, a few are speaking out in defense ofsome increased packaged food consumption, especially when it comes to canned foods, because the convenience they provide -  allowing time for other important things, like homeschooling our children or figuring out Zoom.

New findings have nutritional experts rethinking the decades of “all or nothing” health advice they’ve been dishing out about canned and processed foods. This could be good news for many, especially this year. But first thebad news on packaged foods, because most are still very, very bad for you.

Study after study, includinga recent study published in JAMA, suggests that even eating just a small amount of most processed foods, like instant noodles,sugary cereals, canned soups, chicken nuggets, and even energy drinks andbars on a regular basis can significantly increase your risk of early death resulting from cancer,heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.

To be clear, there’s no doubt that processed foods and canned foods like soups, pastas, meats, and sweetened fruits are a real deterrent to your health; typically loaded with salt,sugar, preservatives,high-fructose corn syrup, and more, these processed products are major contributors to dangerous health conditions likediabetes,high blood pressure, obesity, and inflammation and should be avoided.

So we’re not suggesting people start adopting a packaged food or TV dinner lifestyle. Packaged and fast foods are a large part the reason the U.S. has become the least healthy first world country on the planet. But let’s take a closer look at canned foods specifically. Once again the findings show that the majority of canned foods do little to supportsound nutrition and good health; but the key word here ismajority — meaning this is true of most, but not all canned foods. It turns out some foods that are canned are healthy, nutritious, and also very convenient.  Does that sound too good to be true?  It did to us too, but we did the research and found that there are a number of healthy canned food options you should seriously consider for your pantry. So stay tuned for more information on the healthiest canned food options for you and your family.

But first, let’s take a look at what makesmost canned and processed foods so dangerous and unhealthy; and, spoiler alert, it’s not just the preservatives, artificial ingredients, and excess sodium added to canned foods that make them so bad for us.  In fact, the way foods are canned, including the type of coating on the metal cans, has been shown to be as equally damaging to our health; in particular, one of these verydangerous chemicals is known as BPA.

BPA: The Hidden Danger In Canned Foods

When we think of health concerns associated with canned foods, we typically think of the ingredients in the food — rarely, do we consider problems presented by the can itself.  However, for many health experts, the number one health concern of canned foods is the safety of the cans. 

Many cans are coated with BPA, a chemical used since the 1960’s as a way to keep the metal inside the cans from rusting.  While no one wants to eat food from a rusty can, experts have found that BPA can leach from these cans and into the foods stored inside, and this is where problems arise.

BPA is actually a chemical that mimics estrogen in the human body. When repeatedly exposed to this chemical over time, scientists have found BPA can alter normal estrogen and testosterone levels in the body.  These changes have been observed to have a profound effect on reproductive health,hormone function,blood pressure, brain function, mood and behavioral disorders, insulin resistance, metabolism, and weight gain. This can lead to a host of health issues.

In fact, a recently released study by John Hopkins found that eating just one serving of food per day from a can coated with BPA, increased BPA concentrations in the body by nearly 25%, while two servings increased BPA-concentrations by nearly 60%.

Kick The BPA-Habit for Better Health

Fortunately, not every can, bottle, or container contains BPA; and, with just a little bit of mindful effort, you can protect yourself and your family from consuming BPA.Safer Chemicals Healthier Families, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing strong chemical policy, works with retailers to phase out hazardous chemicals, and educates the public about ways to protect our families from toxic chemicals. They offer the following tips to eliminate BPA from your life.

Only buy products labeled “non-toxic” or “BPA-free” printed on their label. If you can’t find these, then:

  • Opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
  • Buy foods in glass jars (which, as a bonus, can be reused again and again)
  • Avoid using plastic for storage; specifically avoid #7 plastic and use #4 plastic instead.

Canned Products: Nutrient-Dense or Nutrient-Dead?

So, now that we’ve established the safest ways to buy and store our foods, let’s turn our attention toward the nutrient value of canned foods. It’s commonly thought that canned foods tend to be less healthy or less nutritious than their fresh or frozen equivalents. Well, like many things we thought we knew about canned foods before we started our research, it turns out that is not always the case.

Canning foods typically involves high-heat, which can damage some water-soluble vitamins, like Vitamin B and C (which is why we recommend taking a well-formulated food-based multi each day, like theSmarter Multi).  However, the canning process does not change a food’sprotein, carbohydrate, or fat content; and canning causes no change to the amount, or quality, of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins (including A, D, E, and K) in the foods being preserved.

Best Canned Foods For Your Health 

Obviously, canned soups, pastas, and Spam are not the type of foods we are talking about in terms of nutritious canned food options. We are focused on the most nutritious, healthiest fruit, vegetable, bean, and even fish options out there. A few of these options include:

Beans, Chickpeas, and other Legumes

We know that legumes are an essential part of any healthy diet. Rich infiber,protein, B vitamins and essentialminerals like magnesium, iron, copper, potassium, and phosphorus, legumes are considered nearly a perfect health food.  

Yet, almost 100% of American are not meeting the RDA of ½ cup legumes per day (which includes all types of beans, lentils, and chickpeas). Why? Because legumes are a pain to make!  Preparing legumes is really a labor of love — picking through to remove rocks or stems, soaking them overnight, slow cooking for a few more hours — the whole process can take 10-12 hours. Is it any wonder we are not eating our beans?

That’s where canned beans and chickpeas come in! From a nutrition standpoint, home-cooked and canned organic legumes are equally as healthy; however, canned beans can contain upwards of 100 times the sodium that cooked beans contain, so always opt for no-salt and rinse off the juice in a colander before using.

Light Tuna Packed in Spring Water

Canned tuna packed in spring water (not oil) is very low in sodium and has noadded sugar; however, each serving provides over 20 grams ofmuscle-building protein and is rich in essential minerals and vitamins, including zinc, B12, iron, andmagnesium.

If you’re like us, and are concerned for the environment and for the health and safety of our marine life, we recommend only supporting producers who sustainably harvest tuna; look for products labeled “line and pole caught” or contain theMSC-certified seal. The Marine Stewardship Council is considered the most reputable monitor of marine health and monitors specific fish populations and catch methods to ensure fisheries are managed and sustainable.  

Lastly, always opt for light tuna, which, according to the FDA and the EPA, containsless mercury than other tuna options.

Organic Canned Pumpkin 

We tend to only think of pumpkin during the autumn months, and even then we mostly turn to unhealthy baked goods like pumpkin pie and pumpkin muffins. However, organic canned pumpkin is available year-round and is one of the healthiest, most versatile canned foods available.

It is loaded with vitamin A (½ cup of organic pumpkin puree has over 4x the RDA), an essential antioxidant for immunity, to protect againstmental decline, and to support the health of yourskin,eyes, and respiratory system. 

Also rich in fiber, vitamin K, vitamin C, and potassium, organic canned pumpkin added to a smoothie, to hummus, or to a homemade soup supportsdigestive health, helpsbalance blood sugar levels, and is a rich-source of essential vitamins and minerals.

When It Comes to Your Health. Not All Canned Foods Are Created Equal

In addition to labels that include “BPA-free lining”, you’ll want to look for other key health indicators on labels of canned food, including: 

  • Organic
  • No Added Sugar or Salt
  • No Artificial Flavors or Preservatives
  • Sustainable
  • Packed in Spring Water or Packed in Own Juices

The bottom line is that while not all canned foods are healthy, there really are many you can turn to for healthy, delicious, nutrient-rich options for you and your family. In addition to organic canned pumpkin, sustainable water-packed tuna, and beans, there are other great, healthy canned options including organic coconut milk, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, green beans and pineapple. Just make sure they are free from additives, have no added salt or sugar, and are of course in BPA-free cans!

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