Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur. It's blamed for our nation's obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple are also processed foods.
While some processed foods should be consumed with caution, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here's how to sort the nutritious from the not-so-nutritious.
What Is Processed Food?
"We have to determine what processed really means when we're talking about processed food," says Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, past spokesperson of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For example, Giancoli considers white bread refined since most of the healthy fiber has been removed during the processing. "It's also processed, but keep in mind, that as a cook you're doing processing yourself. Have you ever heard of something called a food processor? I think we get really caught up in the word processed without realizing what it truly means."
Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned beans, tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
The Positives of Processed
Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereal may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.
"Bagged vegetables and salads are helping people eat more vegetables," says Giancoli. "They're more expensive, but if your choice is between paying less and chopping it when you know you're not going to do that, and paying a little more for the bagged vegetable you know you're going to eat, the [bagged vegetable] is a better choice."
"You have to look at the big picture," says Giancoli. "Be a detective — read the ingredients list and review the nutrition facts panel. Food is complex and we need to get to know it."
Look for Hidden Sugar, Sodium and Fat
Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but consumers should be on the lookout for hidden sugar, sodium and fat.
"We have tons of added sugars in our food supply," says Giancoli. "We think that just because a product says 'organic' or 'natural,' that means it's better and healthier for us, but that's not always the case … whether [a product] has added high-fructose corn syrup or natural cane sugar, we need to be wary of both."
Sugar isn't just hidden in processed sweets. It's added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there's often a surprising amount added to jarred pasta sauces and cereal. The number of carbohydrates on the nutrition label also includes naturally occurring sugars which may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. Instead, review a product's ingredients list and look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients including sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate.
Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added sodium, which enhances taste and texture and acts as a preservative. We need some sodium, but we often consume much more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams a day.
Surprisingly, a heavy hand with table salt may not be to blame for our overconsumption of sodium. "Three quarters of our sodium intake comes from processed foods," says Giancoli. "Only 20 or 25 percent of it comes from salting our food. The salt shaker is not the major problem."
Canned vegetables, soups and beans can be packed with nutrients, so don't cross them off your shopping list entirely. Instead, look for reduced or low sodium on labels. "Buy products light in sodium, and then sprinkle a little bit of salt on top if you need it," suggests Giancoli. "You're still going to get a lot less sodium than if you bought the regular product." Also, always rinse canned beans and vegetables — this simple step reduces sodium content by about 40 percent.
Added fat helps make food shelf-stable and gives it body. Trans fats — which raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good — are on the decline in processed foods, but you should still read food labels. According to the FDA, a product can still claim it has zero trans fats if each serving has less than half a gram of the fat.
"If [a product] has a really small serving size and you're eating three or four servings, [trans fats] add up," says Giancoli. "Even if a product says it has zero trans fat, check the ingredients list. If it contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, then it's going to have to have some amount of trans fat in it."