Are All Processed Foods Unhealthy?

Not all processed food is bad for you.
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Processed foods have a bad reputation and many people think they'll ruin your health. It's true that some of these foods should be avoided in favor of healthier choices, but some processed foods are good for you. Learn how to choose the best and what to avoid.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods have been altered from their natural state, either for safety reasons or because it makes them easier to store or easier to use.

Some types of processed foods are beneficial.

The most frequent processing methods are canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration, and aseptic processing. It isn't really the method of processing that makes some processed foods so bad—it's the ingredients used in those products. Processed foods made with healthful ingredients are fine for your diet—just avoid those that are high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium, or that have little nutritional value.

Good Processed Foods

Milk is processed food because it's pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating. Low-fat and non-fat milk are good for most people who can digest the lactose (milk sugar). 

Breakfast cereals are processed foods that can be good for you when they're made with 100-percent whole grain and fortified with additional nutrients. Unfortunately, many breakfast cereals are made with too much sugar, and they're low in fiber.

Read the Nutrition Facts label on the package; it will help you decide if the breakfast cereal is good or not.

Frozen foods are processed foods too. The best frozen foods are vegetables and fruits that don't contain any sauce, sugar or syrup. Freezing preserves most vitamins and minerals and makes the food convenient to store, cook, and eat all year round.

Fruit and vegetable juices are beneficial most of the time, but avoid the brands with added sugars or that are high in sodium. Some juices, like certain brands of orange juice, are fortified with calcium, which makes them even better.

Oatmeal, frozen fish, and seafood (not fish sticks or breaded varieties), canned salmon, and canned tuna are healthful. Dried fruits, roasted nuts and seeds, and 100-percent whole grain bread are also examples of processed foods that are right for you.

Bad Processed Foods

Processed foods made with trans fats and large amounts of sodium and sugar aren't good for you. They're low in vitamins and minerals and eating too much of them is bad for your waistline and your health.

Avoid these processed foods, or, at least, eat them sparingly:

  • Canned foods with significant amounts of sodium or fat
  • Pasta meals made with refined white flour instead of whole grains
  • Packaged high-calorie snack foods such as chips and candies
  • Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners that are high in sodium
  • Packaged cakes and cookies
  • Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat and sodium
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Processed meats

A Word From Verywell

Using a rule of thumb such as avoiding all processed foods can throw out the good with the bad.

For choosing any food, the Nutrition Facts label is your best source of information. If you spend a few shopping excursions checking labels, you'll soon be able to recognize which foods are best.

View Article Sources
  • Eating Processed Foods. United Kingdom National Health Service.
  • Wolfram T. Processed Foods: What's OK, What to Avoid. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.