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 instant meals, 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 your daily routine.
What Is Processed Food?
"Processed foods" include those that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or nutritionally altered by fortifying, preserving or preparing it in different ways. In other words, any time we cook, bake or prepare a food, we're creating a processed food.
Processed foods fall on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
- Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply prepared in advance for convenience.
- Other foods with less processing include those processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness like canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned tuna.
- The next set of processed foods would be those with ingredients added for flavor and texture (which may include sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives), including items like pasta sauce, yogurt and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, cereal and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
Shop Smart When Selecting Processed Foods
Certain processed foods can help you eat more nutrient-dense foods. Milk and juices may be fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may be fortified with iron and fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. And minimally processed foods 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
Some processed foods may contain higher amounts of added sugar and sodium, so it’s always helpful to check the Nutrition Facts Label.
Added sugars are any type of sugar that is not naturally occurring in a specific food. Instead, these sugars are added during processing. Added sugars aren't just those in desserts or sodas. Sugars are added to bread to give it a golden brown hue, as well as many jarred pasta sauces and cereals. They can also show up in items that are already sweet – like juice or canned fruit.
The Nutrition Facts Label specifies how many grams of added sugars are in a product, as well as the total amount of sugar. Another way to look for added sugars is to review a product’s ingredient list and look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients (these include sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate). Ingredients are listed by weight so the first two or three ingredients are the most prevalent.
Learn more about the Nutrition Facts Label by visiting the FDA website.
Processed foods also can be 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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