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The Pitfalls of Processed Foods

The recent concern about horse meat in beef products has left many parents concerned about serving processed foods at home. We take a look at some of the pitfalls of processed foods and how to avoid them.

The term 'processed' merely applies to anything that has been done to the food to make it more palatable, digestible or last longer. Simple techniques, such as heating in sealed jars or cans, slating, milling and drying, have been around for centuries. However, in the current system of food manufacture and retailing, where huge quantities and variety of food are available, and indeed demanded, by the consumer, food processing has become very sophisticated.

In general, most convenience foods, such as snacks, biscuits, cakes, 'cook-in' sauces, breakfast cereals and 'ready-made' meals rely on three main ingredients to increase shelf life and palatability. These are salt, sugar and fats (often hydrogenated). Some of these foods have little or no nutritional value other than calories, and in large amounts they may have adverse effects on health. If eaten frequently children will become accustomed to the taste of these ingredients and an unhealthy pattern is set for life.

In addition to salt, sugar and fats, many chemical and modified ingredients may be added to these foods to increase shelf life and improve appearance. These can include:

  • potassium sorbate
  • humectants
  • sulphur dioxide
  • emulsifiers
  • tripotassium phosphate
  • acidity regulators
  • sulphites
  • maltodextrin
  • annatto
  • stabilisers
  • adipic acid
  • glucose syrup

Putting aside the claims of adverse health effects or otherwise of these types of ingredients, do you really want to be feeding unrecognisable chemicals to your children? Making your own food, using fresh and simple ingredients, will mean you have control over what your family is eating.

However, some of the more basic processed foods can be nutritious and a boon to a busy mother.

  • Simple canned items, such as pulses, fish and tomatoes, are only processed as much as is required to ensure the safety of the product and will retain much of their nutritional value. Try to choose items without added sugar or salt
  • Basic foods such as bread and pasta vary. Choose more wholegrain products as your child gets older to increase nutrient value and keep children feeling full for longer.
  • Frozen vegetables are handy and the next best thing to fresh. A handful of peas thrown into a risotto or pasta dish can add colour, flavour and nutrients, for example. Good-quality fish and meat, frozen from fresh, can also be useful.

Suggestions for avoiding processed foods

  • For breakfast. Many manufactured cereals contain high levels of salt and sugar. Be sure to read the labels carefully to compare different products or make your own muesli with rolled oats, dried fruit and chopped nuts to a recipe your children enjoy. Try chopped, dried mango, dried cranberries and other exciting ingredients they like. Freshly made porridge with added raisins or banana and perhaps just a little cream or Greek yoghurt is delicious.
  • In place of 'breaded' items such as chicken nuggets or fish fingers, dip turkey fillet steaks, chicken breast strips or fish fillet strips into beaten egg and coat in lightly seasoned oatbran or fine oatmeal. Shallow fry or bake.
  • Make your own pastry from half wholemeal and half plain flour. Make double quantities and freeze what you do not need.
  • Homemade biscuits, muffins and simple cakes are much better snacks for children, using basic ingredients that are wholesome and nutritious.
  • Make your own food 'convenient'. Fresh tomato and meat sauces can be made in generous amounts and frozen for another day or converted into another meal. So, mince can make spaghetti Bolognese one day; add kidney beans and a little chilli and you have chilli con carne. A roast chicken one day can become a filing for wraps the next day and added to risotto the day after.

Homemade alternatives

Many processed foods that are sold for children can easily be made at home in healthier and tastier versions. These also have the advantage that the child can help in the making of their food.

Taken from Feeding Made Easy by Gina Ford


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