Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid

Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
Processed Foods: What

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Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur. It's blamed for obesity rates, high blood pressure and the rise 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 also are processed foods.

While some processed foods should be consumed less often, 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?

"Processed food" includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we're processing food.

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned 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 pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

The Positives of Processed

Processed food can help you eat more nutrient-dense foods. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals 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 and pre-washed, bagged spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.

If you want to minimize your intake of processed food, aim to do more food prep and cooking at home. Base meals on whole foods including vegetables, beans and whole grains.

Look for Hidden Sugar and Sodium

Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but many of these foods may contain high amounts of added sugar and sodium.

Added Sugars

Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added manually.Added sugars aren't just hidden in processed sweets. They're added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there often is a surprising amount added to jarred pasta sauces and cereal. Added sugars often are used in low-fat foods to improve taste and consistency. The grams of carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label also includes naturally occurring sugars which may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. Instead, review a product's ingredient 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.

Sodium

Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life. Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. Choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease the amount of salt you're consuming from processed foods.

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