Processed foods have a bad reputation. The term often brings to mind things like chemicals, additives, and strange cooking methods, saturated fat, and excess sugar or sodium. For this reason, processed foods often are pointed to as playing a significant role in public health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
There is some truth to this, but only in the case of certain types of processed foods. Because while “processed” may have become synonymous with unhealthy, in truth the term simply means “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available to eat,” according to the International Food Information Council Foundation—which means that simply coring and slicing an apple could be considered processing it.
That said, the methods most commonly associated with processing foods include more elaborate preparations. Some are perfectly OK and may actually render foods safer and healthier to eat as well as easier to cook with and store. Meanwhile, there are plenty of processed foods made from refined ingredients (meaning they’ve been stripped of nutrients) and artificial substances that truly aren’t good for you.
The best way to tell the difference between healthy refined food and not so healthy refined food is by doing a little nutritional sleuthing (as in label reading).
Processed Foods Defined
It’s useful to view processed foods as being on a spectrum of “minimally to heavily processed,” as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does here:
- Minimally processed foods are ones that have been pre-prepped for convenience. Think washed and bagged salad greens, peeled and sliced fruits, roasted nuts, and hard-boiled eggs.
- Foods that have been processed while at their peak in terms of ripeness, flavor, and nutrition. Examples include canned tomatoes, canned tuna and salmon, and frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture, such as sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives. These are foods such as jarred pasta sauce, bottled salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods. Some examples of these more heavily processed foods are crackers, potato chips and similar snacks, granola, and deli meat.
- Heavily processed foods. These often are pre-made meals like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners. This category also includes man-made concoctions such as soda, donuts, cookies, and other baked goods, and candy. Heavily processed foods often contain artificial ingredients such as preservatives, colorants, fake flavorings, and chemicals designed to give them a particular texture.
Beneficial Processed Foods
Certain foods benefit from processing. Some examples include:
- Milk that’s been pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating.
- Fortified grain products such as bread and breakfast cereal have extra nutrients. Watch out for added sugar and sodium, though. It’s important to read the Nutrition Facts label on any processed-food package
- Orange juice with added calcium is nutritionally superior to fresh-squeezed. (Flavor is another matter, depending on your personal preference.)
- Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Because it’s processed as soon as it’s harvested, frozen or canned produce tends to retain more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other nutrients than fresh produce that sits around in the produce department of a grocery store for days on end. Be aware that the addition of sugar (including high-fructose corn syrup), salt, syrup, or sauce to frozen or canned vegetables or fruits will negate their nutritional value.
- Dried fruits. Ounce for ounce, they have more fiber (important for fighting heart disease obesity, and certain types of cancer) and phenols (a type of antioxidant) than fresh fruit, according to Harvard Health. As with other processed foods, keep an eye out for added sugars.
Not all processed foods are unhealthy, but steer clear of processed foods that contain ingredients like trans fats, large amounts of sodium and sugar, and chemicals with unpronounceable names. They tend to be low in vitamins and minerals and can lead to weight gain.
Processed Foods to Avoid
- Canned foods with significant amounts of sodium or fat
- Pasta meals made with refined white flour instead of whole grains
- Packaged high-calorie snack foods such as chips and candies
- Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners that are high in sodium
- Packaged cakes and cookies
- Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat and sodium
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Processed meat
Indulging in these foods once in a while shouldn’t harm you, but if you make a steady diet of them there’s a very good chance it will have an impact on your overall health. Sticking with whole, fresh, and minimally processed foods is an easy way to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.