Food preservatives are widely used in our food supply. Often the term “processed food” is viewed negatively, but in fact there’s often good reason to process foods. Processing helps reduce harmful bacteria, allowing for a longer shelf life, the preservation of the natural characteristics of food, as well as preserving the appearance of foods.

There’s been a lot of hype about a variety of processed foods. Those not in favor of processed food will try to mislead people by making statements something like this: “Do you know what kind of chemicals are in your food?” The idea that there could be “chemicals” in your food may sound frightening, but the fact is – food is chemistry.

Even simple cooking techniques are a type of preservation (boiling, pickling, freezing, dehydrating). There are many natural means of food preservation. Salt, sugar, and vinegar have long been used as food preservatives. We often think of sugars as sweeteners, but keep in mind, that sugar is one of the earliest food preservatives – it’s chemical properties do more than just sweeten foods. Food manufacturers use both sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup to help preserve the color in food, aid in browning (in breads or cereal bars for instance) and allow for a longer shelf life.

While it’s best to eat mostly whole foods, a few preservatives in your diet aren’t going to hurt. Understanding what these substances actually are can make their chemistry less scary.

Eat What You Like Within Calorie and Fat Range

A healthy diet should include real food that provides the essential nutrients you need to maintain a healthy weight and prevent or reduce disease risk or, manage any diseases you may have. There is no “one meal plan” for everyone. While some people (like those with metabolic syndrome) may benefit from a low carbohydrate diet, others may fair better with a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber. In most cases, people go too far with “low carb diets”. Sometimes choosing the less processed food may be a great choice, however fitting in some processed food can also be okay.

For instance, let’s compare a few processed foods, beginning with two popular energy bars in ‘chocolate chunk/chip’ type flavors: Lara Bar and Luna Bar.

While they are both processed food (that is they are not foods in their natural, original state) in this case, the one with less ingredients (Larabar – dates, chocolate chips, almonds, dried cherries, cashews, and sea salt) happens to have more fat and sugar than the other, but less sodium (Lunabar, which has more ingredients – LunaPro ® (Soy Rice Crisp [Soy Protein Isolate, Organic Rice Flour], Organic Toasted Oats [Organic Rolled Oats, Organic Dried Cane Syrup], Organic Roasted Soybeans, Organic Soy Flour, Organic Flaxmeal), Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Chocolate Chunks (Organic Dried Cane Syrup, Organic Unsweetened Chocolate, Organic Cocoa Butter, Organic Soy Lecithin, Organic Vanilla), Organic Macadamia Nut Butter, Inulin (Chicory Extract), Cocoa Soy Rice Crisps (Soy Protein Isolate, Organic Rice Flour, Organic Alkalized Cocoa, Alkalized Cocoa), Natural Flavors, Organic Oat Syrup Solids, Vegetable Glycerin, Sea Salt, Organic Sunflower Oil.).

The Lara Bar provides 190 calories (Luna Bar, 180), 8 grams of total fat, 2.5 grams saturated (Luna Bar provides 5 grams fat, 1.5 saturated), both have zero cholesterol; Lara bar provides only 40 milligrams of sodium (Luna packs a walloping 210 milligrams); 3 grams fiber and 22 grams of sugar (Luna 3 grams of fiber, 11 grams of sugar). If you have high blood pressure, the Larabar may be a better choice, but otherwise?

Interesting to me is that Larabar uses several “dessert” names for its bars, such as “Key Lime Pie”, “Carrot Cake”, and “Pineapple Upside Down Cake”. When was the last time you had a piece of pineapple upside down cake? (Does anyone between the ages of 12 and 22 even know what pineapple upside down cake is?) Trust me, the real cake is way better than the packaged bar.

So if you were to ask me “What is your favorite nutrition bar” I’d have to simply say: “I don’t have one. Choose the one that tastes best to you”.

I’d rather you shoot for eating more real food most of the time, but not obsess over eating what someone may call “processed food” once in a while. And instead of depriving yourself for that treat you are really craving, just have a small portion of it and enjoy it.

It really just comes down to good eating habits and balance. Don’t demonize a food ingredient or worry unnecessarily that one food is so much better than another. Just enjoy real food, and smaller portions of treat foods.