With a broad and sometimes shifting definition, depending on who you’re talking to, the term ‘processed foods’ has taken on a life of its own. But has the phrase simply evolved into a health and wellness bogeyman? What exactly are processed foods? How bad are they, really? And should we avoid them at all costs?
“I actually don’t eat processed foods.” You hear it fly out of your mouth at a cocktail party or a first date, and as soon as it does, you realize you have no idea what it actually means. Even if you haven’t said it out loud, surely you’ve heard the phrase, and in an effort to “get healthier” in some way, internally deemed them unsuitable for consumption. But what are processed foods and are they as harmful as they’ve been billed? Should you just simply avoid them altogether? And is that even possible? The answer is nuanced, but mostly…not so much.
What is processed food?
“Processed foods” implies an enormously large umbrella, and encapsulates any food that has been changed in some way prior to sale, cooking, and consumption. The International Food Information Council identifies processing food as “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat…as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients.”
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An acute diet with an emphasis on unprocessed foods.
This can be complicated to navigate since there a thousand and one ways to modify foods, from the drastic to the basic; ancient techniques, like drying and fermenting, to more modern genetic and chemical modifications. Foods are also modified for all sorts of reasons, from improving taste and visual appearance to extending shelf life, but also some other unexpected reasons you might not associate with processing, and which are actually good for you.
The few totally unprocessed foods—the ones you’ve been telling yourself to eat as much of as humanly possible—are a fairly small list of fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, and other foods that are just as they were when they left the earth, tree, vine, pod, shell, sea, or slaughterhouse. So a better question to think about (and ask yourself) as you stroll the aisles of the grocery store is not “Is it processed?” but rather “How processed is it?” (and “How is it processed?”). Speaking VERY generally, the less the better, with a few serious caveats.
How processed is it?
Some minimally processed foods like bagged vegetables, fresh fruits, plain rice/grains, salad greens, seeds, nuts, and roasted coffee beans are technically processed, but in very innocuous ways, simply cooking or preparing them for in-store and at-home convenience. These are processed for your benefit; cleaned, cooked or cut for safety and ease.
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Slightly more heavily processed foods, like boxed crackers, frozen fruits, or canned/frozen vegetables and legumes, may have some added preservatives, but the effect is minimal as the basic canning, packaging, and freezing processes are effective and relatively non-invasive. Do remember, however, that canned foods experience a significant loss of nutrients so fresh is always better if it’s possible.
More processed foods include those modified for taste and appearance with sweeteners, flavorings, spices, and of course, preservatives. These include bottled sauces, salad dressings, and spice/batter/gravy mixes. This more complex category is one that requires you to learn, read, and research specific ingredients so you know what you’re putting into your body. A good rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients, the better—and remember, they are listed in descending order from the most prevalent ingredient to the least. The hard to pronounce ingredients are often fillers, sweeteners, colorants, and preservatives.
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Bread and baked goods are one category of food that runs the gamut from highly processed to not much at all, and should be very carefully considered. Bleached white bread and rolls, like Wonder brand, are highly processed and preserved, obliterating all nutritional value, while more natural brands like Arnold and Bread Alone, still may contain some preservatives, but not nearly as many. Watch out for fillers and sweeteners like corn syrup or even less scary-sounding honey, which are unnecessary. Again, read the ingredients; the fewer total and the more you recognize, the better.
The worst processed foods come in the most convenient of Trojan horses: ready-to-eat, frozen or prepackaged food and meals. The more complicated the food, the more tampering with it needs to be done for it to remain edible and “tasty.” This includes frozen packaged meals and microwavable dinners, complex packaged desserts with cream and frosting like Twinkies and Pop-Tarts. This does not apply across the board, however, and newer brands like Amy’s Foods having found ways to make and distribute frozen foods without heavy use of chemical preservatives. The proof is always in the packaging, so read, read, read!
Processed for good
On the flip side, some foods are processed to improve or fortify their health benefits, although these days it is, unfortunately, a smaller percentage than those processed for reasons not related to nutrition. Certain bread and granolas are fortified with fiber, or riboflavin, for instance. Milk, juices, drinks, and yogurts often get a boost of calcium or vitamins that have varying degrees of positive impact on our health.
Another thing to keep in mind is “low-fat” and “diet foods” are very often processed at a higher rate than others, and many times in a negative way. Consider that if a food product is billed as “low-fat,” that means fat (taste) was removed from the original product and it has likely been either chemically altered or contains severe flavor additives to make up for the loss of fat and flavor. More often than not, this means added sugar, which is arguably worse for us than the original fat that was removed.
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In general, the term “processed foods” should not be something to scare you or stop you from buying or eating something, but if you suspect or discover something has been heavily processed, for any reason, it would be wise to consider both the means for and the process by which it was altered before buying. When it comes to food, as with almost anything else, knowledge is power! (So check out healthier alternatives to ultra-processed foods, and learn how to read and understand a nutrition label too.)
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