Food Fight Quiz: Processed vs. Fresh

Your health care provider, mom and common sense may have always told you that farm-fresh foods beat their processed competitors but you'll be shocked to find that fresh isn't always best.

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Oscar Mayer Selects Angus Beef Franks vs. Fresh Sirloin Steak

Oscar Mayer Selects Angus Beef Franks vs. Fresh Sirloin Steak
Hot dogs have come a long way. This new variety from Oscar Mayer contains no artificial flavors, colors, fillers, byproducts, or added nitrates or nitrites. And — get this — they're supposed to be eaten within 7 days of opening the package (not 7 years). But each dog still derives nearly 80 percent of its calories from fat, and contains 420 mg of sodium. Comparatively, sirloin is one of the leanest cuts of beef available, and it's a protein, B-vitamin, zinc, and iron warehouse that has just one ingredient (versus the wiener's 11).

And the best food to eat is…

Sirloin Steak (with one important caveat)

Sirloin Steak (with one important caveat)
That is, you don't eat the whole piece. Here's the dilemma: A hot dog is portion controlled. You eat one, maybe two. But with a steak, most people will clean their plate. If you have an 8- or 12-ounce cut, you can end up consuming significantly more calories and fat than if you'd opted for the hot dog. "The steak is the clear winner because of its nutrient density and high-quality protein," says Molly Morgan, RD, CDN, the author of Choose Right Shopping Guide! and The Skinny Rules!, and owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions in Vestal, New York. "But you still need to be mindful of portion size." That means limiting yourself to a 3-ounce cut (about the size of a deck of cards), and also ordering it grilled or broiled without butter, which is unfortunately standard practice in many steakhouses.

Green Giant Frozen Sweet Peas vs. Fresh-Picked Peas

Green Giant Frozen Sweet Peas vs. Fresh-Picked Peas
Within hours of being picked, Green Giant says its peas are given a "quick heat treatment to stop the natural enzymes that can reduce their goodness over time" and then are flash-frozen to "lock in important vitamins." This is the case with many varieties of frozen vegetables. Meanwhile, "fresh" supermarket peas and veggies are picked, packaged and shipped, which can take days or even weeks depending on the distance between field and store.

And the best food to eat is...

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Frozen Peas

Frozen Peas
Despite their rough-and-tumble appearance, peas are relatively fragile vegetables that lose many of their nutrients (i.e., 10–20 percent of vitamin C) and much of their sweetness (up to 60 percent) within 24 hours of harvesting. So unless you're picking them from your backyard garden or buying them from a local farm, your supermarket's freezer case is the best source. If you prefer organic, try the Cascadian Farm brand.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (original) vs. Farm Butter (salted)

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (original) vs. Farm Butter (salted)
A quick comparison of nutritional data in the supermarket aisle might lead you to believe that this one's a toss-up. The farm butter has only two ingredients (sweet cream and salt), and significantly less sodium (8 mg vs. 90 mg per tablespoon). But I Can't Believe It's Not Butter has 30 fewer calories, 3 g less fat, and zero cholesterol and trans fat per tablespoon. It also has more heart-healthy omega-3s.

And the best food to eat is...

Farm Butter

Farm Butter
If you look closely at the ingredients in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, you'll spot "partially hydrogenated soybean oil." How can that be? Doesn't it say "0 g trans fat" on the label? Morgan explains that since the amount used is less than 0.5 g, the FDA allows it to be rounded down to zero. Hence, the technically accurate but misleading claim. "But say you have three or four products per day with 0 g trans fat, and each one actually contains 0.3 g or so per serving," she points out. "You could be having 1.2 g or more of trans fat per day while thinking you're not eating any. For health reasons, trans fats should be avoided."

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Near East Spanish Rice vs. Homemade Spanish Rice

Near East Spanish Rice vs. Homemade Spanish Rice
Nutritionally, these two adversaries are roughly equivalent in calories, fat, carbohydrate, protein, and fiber. The packaged product is also pretty natural, with 11 recognizable ingredients. But there is one big difference: When prepared as recommended using the included seasoning packet, the Near East rice contains 910 mg of sodium per cup, which is about 40 percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA).

And the best food to eat is...

Near East Spanish Rice

Near East Spanish Rice
A controversial decision, no doubt, but three factors influenced us: taste, convenience, and preparation method. Barbara Ruhs, MS, RN, LDN, a former nutrition therapist at Harvard University, founder of Neighborhood Nutrition in Somerville, Massachusetts, and now a retail supermarket dietician in Phoenix, points out that when you're making your own, you have to prepare the rice and also buy, chop and cook the peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, herbs and spices. It's a challenging and time-consuming dish to make. And it will likely not satisfy your family as much as what comes out of the box. The key to making it more healthful is using no more than half the contents of the seasoning packet. "That significantly reduces sodium, and it'll still taste wonderful," says Ruhs.

Another advantage is that Near East uses parboiled long-grain rice. Parboiling is a method of production that drives vitamins and minerals from the bran or husk (before it's removed) into the grain. "So even though it's white rice, it still has more nutrients than the plain old white rice you'd probably use to make your own dish," says Morgan. (Parboiled rice can actually contain up to 80 percent of the nutrients of brown rice.) So in the grand scheme of dinnertime, it's better to go with the factory food here and devote your cooking energy elsewhere, where it can make more of a difference.

Ore-Ida Tater Tots vs. Homemade French Fries

Ore-Ida Tater Tots vs. Homemade French Fries
For the sake of this food fight, we're assuming that the homemade fries are peeled and deep-fried — just like Momma used to make 'em. Nutritionally, the Tots have eight ingredients, and a serving contains 170 calories, 8 g fat, 2 g fiber, and 420 mg sodium. The homemade fries also take some work to make, while the Tots seem to tumble out of the bag, onto an oven tray, and eventually down your throat without much effort.

And the best food to eat is...

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It's a Draw

It's a Draw
"Although the homemade version will have less sodium and fewer ingredients, if you're deep-frying and skinning the potatoes, they'll have the same amount of fat and fiber as the Tater Tots," says Morgan. For a far more healthful alternative to both, Ruhs recommends slicing unskinned sweet potatoes, sprinkling them with your favorite spices, and baking them in the oven on a tray that's been coated with a little cooking spray. The kids will enjoy them as much as the Tots, she says.

Mott’s Natural (Unsweetened) Applesauce vs. Tree-Picked Apples

Mott’s Natural (Unsweetened) Applesauce vs. Tree-Picked Apples
A cup of the applesauce contains 100 calories, 12 g sugar, and 2 g fiber. It also has just three ingredients (apples, water and ascorbic acid/vitamin C). A medium version of the real thing has about 65 calories, 13 g sugar, and 3 g fiber.

And the best food to eat is...

It Depends

It Depends
If you're packing lunch for the kids, put a single-serving packet of the applesauce in the bag. Ruhs says it'll have a better chance of getting eaten than a regular apple because of its convenience. But if you're looking for a nutritious at-home, after-school snack for the entire family, go with the fresh apples. "The skin contains all sorts of beneficial phytonutrients and antioxidants that are lost when you make applesauce," notes Morgan.

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Wonder Classic White Bread vs. Just-Baked Baguette

Wonder Classic White Bread vs. Just-Baked Baguette
Wonder Bread lost a lot of its wonderfulness over the years, as did white bread in general. But it's been trying to make a comeback. This brand boasts of being fortified with calcium (2 slices have the same amount as 8 ounces of milk), vitamin D, riboflavin, folic acid, iron, thiamine, and niacin. All of this could make you believe that it might deliver more of a nutritional punch than a traditional bakery baguette, which has just four ingredients (flour, yeast, water and salt) and trace nutrients.

And the best food to eat is...

The Baguette

The Baguette
Our bodies may not utilize the nutrients in fortified foods to the same extent as those derived from natural sources. Plus, as Ruhs points out, we shouldn't be buying products because of the buzzwords on the packaging. If you want calcium, drink milk. If you want more vitamin D, go for a 20-minute walk outdoors. And if you want great bread, choose one with the fewest ingredients. (Wonder Bread can have as many as 30.)

Gatorade G-Original vs. Orange Juice

Gatorade G-Original vs. Orange Juice
You've seen the TV commercials. Gatorade was the first sports drink, it has nearly 50 years of research and athletic use behind it, and it's all about maximizing performance. But what PepsiCo doesn't mention in those ads is that G-Original traditionally contained high fructose corn syrup (recently changed to a sucrose-dextrose blend), artificial color and brominated vegetable oil. Orange juice, on the other hand, is totally natural, and nutrient dense (120 percent of your daily vitamin C in 8 ounces).

And the best food to eat is...

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It Depends

It Depends
If you're exercising intensely for more than an hour, the electrolytes and simple sugars in Gatorade are probably a more effective and digestible fuel than orange juice. But most people don't even come close to working out like that. "The average person doesn't need extra electrolytes or a special carbohydrate blend for fuel," says Morgan. Adds Ruhs: "If you're wondering why you've been going to the gym but aren't losing weight, well maybe it's because you're drinking sugar water. Water and a banana will provide a lot of what Gatorade does."

As you can see, the choice between factory and farm isn't always so clear-cut. But as a general shopping rule, Morgan recommends fresh because "it'll have fewer ingredients and will be less processed," which assures a higher nutrient quality.

But at the same time, you have to weigh that credo against your family, time and budgetary needs. Sometimes our busy days just don't allow for making sweet potato fries from scratch. In those instances, if you read labels carefully, the factory product doesn't have to be such a bad choice after all.

"Companies are finally realizing that people don't want all these preservatives and additives in their food, and they're making cleaner products," says Ruhs.

And that will ultimately make everyone a winner.

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4 thoughts on “Food Fight Quiz: Processed vs. Fresh

  1. Its not believable that any food stuff processed can be more nutritional etc. than the one that is quite fresh. In accordance with my observational experience it is self-proved by myself that something fresh is fresh, that’s enough to say.

    – A.R.Shams’s Reflection – Press & Online Publications – Moral Messages for Humanity.

    1. If your sirloin taste like shoe leather it’s because you’re probably eating a 10 year old dairy cow and not a 12-14 month old beef steer

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