If you are at all interested in nutrition, dieting, healthy eating or weight loss, you have undoubtedly come across the term processed foods. Most likely, you have learned that processed foods are a no-no. They are blamed for everything from high blood pressure and cholesterol to increased rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
But that understanding is too simple. “Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur,” says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But while some processed foods are best avoided, others are perfectly healthy and belong in any well-balanced diet.
Here’s how to tell the difference.
What Constitutes Processed Foods?
Processed foods include any food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed nutritionally by adding beneficial nutrients, preserving or preparing in different ways. In other words, almost anything that isn’t eaten raw is processed to some degree.
“Plain and simple, any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food,” says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta, owner of the Lifestyle Dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So while processed food does include your frozen TV dinner, that bag of barbecue chips and a drive-through cheeseburger, it also includes that loaf of whole-wheat bread, pot of homemade chicken soup or cup of fruit salad. All these foods are, by definition, processed.
Are They Healthy?
Given that definition, it’s plain that some processed foods are healthy and others are not. “A bag of roasted peanuts is considered processed, but it’s fine. But honey-coated, chocolate-dipped peanuts, obviously they are more processed and worse for you,” says Abby Greenspun, a registered dietitian in Westport, Connecticut.
Processed food falls on a scale from minimally to heavily processed, Jones says. Heavily processed foods include:
- Pre-made meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
- Soda and sugary fruit drinks.
- Sweetened breakfast cereals.
- Hot dogs, deli meat and other processed meats.
These items and others like them “are conveniently found in grocery stores, gas stations, retail stores, everywhere you shop,” Jones says. “These foods have extra oil, sugar, salt and calories, increasing your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension.”
Minimally processed foods include:
- Bagged lettuce and spinach.
- Cut vegetables.
- Roasted nuts.
- Canned, unsweetened fruits and unsalted vegetables.
- Canned fish like tuna and salmon.
These items are simply pre-prepped for convenience. “They are foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness,” Jones says. As such, these processed foods can help you eat more foods higher in vitamins, minerals and nutrients. “Sometimes milk and juices are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber or iron,” she says. “Canned fruit packed in water or its own juice or plain frozen fruit are good options when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables and prewashed, bagged kale, collard greens or spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.”
How to Separate Good from Bad
One way to minimize your intake of heavily processed food is to do more food prep and cooking at home. “Include whole foods such as vegetables, beans, seafood and whole grains,” Jones says.
Also, read labels on the products you buy. Jones warns specifically about added sugars, which add empty calories to boost flavor without adding any nutritional value. “The updated Nutrition Facts label specifies how many added sugars are in a product. Be mindful of the percentage of added sugars in a food product,” she says, and try to eliminate products with these added sweeteners. “Artificial sweeteners are just bad,” Greenspun agrees. “Most are cancer causers, cause weight gain, stimulate appetite more and also cause the body to process fat differently.”
When you review a product’s ingredient list, look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients. Avoid the following:
- Brown sugar.
- Corn syrup.
- Cane sugar.
- Fruit juice concentrate.
In addition, read labels to find added salt. “Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life,” Jones says. 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.
Added colorings should also be shunned, Greenspun says. Read labels carefully, because they can show up in so-called “healthy” products, like some energy bar brands. “They look all nice and healthy, but if you look at the ingredient list you see artificial color – red, blue, yellow dyes – that have been banned in Europe and Canada,” she says. “They are linked to mood and behavioral disorders. They are bad for adults and even worse for kids.”
When eating out, ask for healthier options at restaurants, such as soups, fruit, salads and grilled, roasted, baked, steamed or broiled (not fried) food choices. And never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, Greenspun advises.
In the end, it’s up to you to make a conscious decision to reduce your intake of heavily processed foods. “You can have junk food sometimes,” she says. “You just have to make the effort to cut down.”