Beneficial and Unhealthy Processed Foods

Not all processed food is bad for you.
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Processed foods have a bad reputation. The term often brings to mind things like chemicals, additives, and strange cooking methods, saturated fat and excess sugar or sodium. For this reason, processed foods often are pointed to as playing a significant role in public health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

There is some truth to this, but only in the case of certain types of processed foods. Because while "processed" may have become synonymous with unhealthy, in truth the term simply means "any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it's available to eat," according to the International Food Information Council Foundation—which means that simply coring and slicing an apple could be considered processing it.

That said, the methods most commonly associated with processing foods include more elaborate preparations. Some are perfectly OK and may actually render foods safer and healthier to eat as well as easier to cook with and store. Meanwhile, there are some processed foods that are refined, or contain artificial ingredients and additives that aren't as nutritious. These foods should be eaten less often.

The best way to tell the difference between healthy food and not so healthy food is by doing a little nutritional sleuthing (as in label reading).

Processed Foods Defined

It's useful to view processed foods as being on a spectrum of "minimally to heavily processed," as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does here:

  • Minimally processed foods are ones that have been pre-prepped for convenience. Think washed and bagged salad greens, peeled and sliced fruits, roasted nuts, and hard-boiled eggs.
  • Foods that have been processed while at their peak in terms of ripeness, flavor, and nutrition. Examples include canned tomatoes, canned tuna and salmon, and frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture, such as sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives. These are foods such as jarred pasta sauce, bottled salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods. Some examples of these more heavily processed foods are crackers, potato chips and similar snacks, granola, and deli meat.
  • Heavily processed foods. These often are pre-made meals like frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners. This category also includes man-made concoctions such as soda, donuts, cookies, and other baked goods, and candy. Heavily processed foods often contain artificial ingredients such as preservatives, colorants, fake flavorings, and chemicals designed to give them a particular texture.

Beneficial Processed Foods

Certain foods benefit from processing. Some examples include:

  • Milk that's been pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating.
  • Fortified grain products such as bread and breakfast cereal have extra nutrients. Watch out for added sugar and sodium, though. It's important to read the Nutrition Facts label on any processed-food package
  • Orange juice with added calcium is nutritionally superior to fresh-squeezed. (Flavor is another matter, depending on your personal preference.)
  • Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Because it's processed as soon as it's harvested, frozen or canned produce tends to retain more vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other nutrients than fresh produce that sits around in the produce department of a grocery store for days on end.
  • Dried fruits. Ounce for ounce, they have more fiber (important for fighting heart disease obesity and certain types of cancer) and phenols (a type of antioxidant) than fresh fruit, according to Harvard Health. As with other processed foods, keep an eye out for added sugars.

Not all processed foods are unhealthy, but foods that contain ingredients like trans fat, large amounts of sodium, sugar, and chemicals with unpronounceable names should be consumed less often. These types of foods are also often lower in vitamins, minerals, and fiber than other whole foods. Eating large amounts of these types of foods can increase the risk of certain diseases.

Processed Foods to Limit

Foods listed below may impact your health if they are consumed regularly because they are likely to contain excess sodium and added sugar. For example, excess sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, increased intake of processed meats has been linked to cancer and excess intake of sugar is associated with heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

  • 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 meat or cured meats such as sausage, bacon, and deli meats

Indulging in these foods once in a while shouldn't harm you, but if you make a steady diet of them there's a very good chance it will have an impact on your overall health. Sticking with whole, fresh, and minimally processed foods is an easy way to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.

Also, keep in mind that nowadays food companies are trying to make foods more convenient while also focusing on quality. For example, frozen fish sticks may not be a bad choice if they are made with wild fish and minimal ingredients. Reading labels and checking for sodium, fiber, and ingredients is the best way to find quality foods.

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4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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