Not all processed foods are bad for you. Many are in fact good for you. The term processed food can seem to be a bit misleading. Essentially, it's a pretty broad description for any type of food that has been changed from its original form for preservation purposes. However, there is a common misconception that all processed foods are terrible. This couldn't be further from the truth. Processed foods are actually an important part of a healthy diet, assuming they're used in moderation and consumed in proper portions!
What are processed foods?
Processed foods are those which have been altered in some way through cooking, canning, freezing, dehydration, or milling.
Processed foods often contain added ingredients such as salt, sugars, or fats that aren't necessarily needed to turn the wholefoods into the final product.
What does “processed” mean?
The use of the word “processed” may be a little confusing because it can mean different things depending on who you’re talking to. When I refer to processed foods, I mean foods that are altered from their natural state in some way. For example, cleaning a vegetable is a processing step. So is cooking it, or grinding it into flour.
Other people might use the term “processed food” to refer to foods that are prepared with chemicals or additives that don’t occur naturally – the kinds of foods you find on the outer edges of the grocery store, where all of the processed foods live (salad dressings, chips, cookies).
For me, both kinds of processing are relevant; we should try to eat as many minimally-processed whole foods as possible for health reasons, and we should avoid highly-processed fake foods and junky additives – but only for health reasons as well.
So let’s talk about why processed food is “bad for you” – or at least why we all think it is.
Why are processed foods bad for you?
You might think that all processed foods are bad for you because they contain ingredients like fat and salt, but it's not so simple.
For example, some foods have to be processed to make them safe to eat or to keep them from going off before we have a chance to eat them. Pasteurizing milk and bottling fruit juice are both examples of processes that improve the safety of our food without changing its natural nutrition too much.
However, some processing methods do add a lot of extra fat, sugar, or salt - the three things we're advised to cut down on for a healthy diet. This is because people tend to prefer eating these ingredients.
Not all processed foods are bad for you.
Processing isn't always bad. Some foods are processed to add nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. That's the case with enriched grains like white bread and pasta, which may be made from whole-grain products but stripped of some of their natural nutrients during processing. The vitamins and minerals are then added back in to make the food more nutritious. It's best to read the ingredient list on any processed food you buy to know what it contains.
Processed foods aren't always unhealthy, either. In fact, many processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet — as long as they're eaten in moderation.
Nutritious versions of processed foods do exist, such as canned fruits and vegetables without added salt or sugar, canned tuna fish without salt, frozen fruits and vegetables without added sauces, and 100% whole-grain bread or cereals that provide fiber. Check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium content when selecting canned foods; choose those with less than 140mg per serving.
Some people think that all processed foods are bad for you, but that's not true. The danger of highly processed foods is that they contain a lot of added sugar, which can lead to weight gain if you eat too much of it. High intakes of saturated fat and sodium also aren't healthy, as these nutrients may contribute to heart disease (1Trusted Source).
However, there are several other types of processed foods that contain little or no added sugar and can be part of a healthy diet, such as:
- Nut butter
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Dried fruits
- Canned beans and legumes
- Some breakfast cereals
Processed foods can be beneficial because they ensure a consistent supply of certain nutritious fruits and vegetables year-round. They also provide a convenient source of key nutrients, like protein and fiber, while helping reduce risk of diet-related disease.
Is there a difference between processed and ultra-processed foods?
Processed food is any food that has undergone a transformation that changes it from its original state. The most common examples of processed foods are canned vegetables, fruit juice, and flour.
Ultra-processed foods represent a subgroup of processed foods that go through several more steps to create highly palatable products with long shelf lives. They contain added flavors, colors, sweeteners, preservatives, and other ingredients such as emulsifiers, humectants, and texturizers. Examples include breaded chicken nuggets, breakfast cereals, sodas, and pizza.
There is a difference between processed and ultra-processed foods. Foods that are minimally processed — such as refrigerated or frozen vegetables and fruits, bagged lettuce, dried fruit, roasted nuts, canned beans and fish, cured meats, and cheeses — are generally fine to consume, so long as they don't contain added sugar.
Ultra-processed foods include sugary cereals, sodas, pastries, and packaged snack foods like chips and crackers. They often have a long list of ingredients, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. These foods can be high in calories and low in nutritional value.
The American Heart Association recommends eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in place of refined grains, sugars, and saturated fats from processed foods.
How to eat healthy, even when eating processed foods.
Processed foods often get a bad name. They’re often high in sugar, salt, fat, and calories — and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
But some processed foods can be part of a healthy diet.
In fact, many packaged foods are processed but still good for you. Examples include canned vegetables, frozen fruit and vegetables, canned tuna or salmon, 100% fruit juice, and pre-made salads.
Some foods are minimally processed, such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts. Other highly processed foods include bacon, smoked salmon, ice cream, and hot dogs. When you're shopping for processed foods, choose those made with whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables. Avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated fats or high-fructose corn syrup.
Most Americans consume too much sodium — about 3,400 milligrams per day — which can raise blood pressure. You should limit your daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams or less.
Sugar is another area of concern with processed foods because it's added to many packaged foods and beverages to improve their taste. Too much added sugar can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Be aware of the total amount of sugar in the food you eat. Look for different types of sugar, such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose in the ingredients list on the nutrition facts label. Eat only small amounts of foods that contain added sugars.
When looking for processed foods to add to your diet, make sure they meet these criteria:
- They don't come in a box or package that has more than five ingredients listed on the label.
- They aren't fried.
- They aren't full of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
- They have no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats).
- They are low in sodium — less than 140 milligrams per serving.
Follow healthy eating criteria to make sure what you eat is good for you.
So really, there is no need to demonize all processed foods. You just have to do your homework and make sure whatever food you are eating meets the healthy eating criteria that would be used by scientists. But if it's fast, easy and cheap just eat it sometimes even if it's "processed".