Processed Foods: Are They Really the Devil?

processed foods

POP Quiz time

Which of the following foods are Processed Foods?

a) Kraft Mac N Cheese

b) Whole wheat bread

c) Cooked carrots

d) Pineapple chunks

e) All of the above


Would you be surprised if I told you the answer is E? It’s true. Let’s learn more about the term processed foods and maybe you will learn that you have been using that term all wrong (and we will learn how to correct your terminology so you can get across what you really mean).

Anything that is altered from its original, natural form is considered to be processed. Eating an apple straight from a tree on the orchard is eating an unprocessed piece of food. Taking the skin off an apple, chopping an apple or steaming an apple are all forms of processing it and therefore putting it in the processed food category.

“Processed Foods” Get a Bad Rap – And They Shouldn’t!

People love to throw around this buzz word but it’s important to note that not all processed food are unhealthy. A lot of processed foods actually are required for a balanced diet. More examples of processed foods: yogurt, milk (cows, almond, soy, etc), meats, frozen veggies and the list goes on an on.

Did you know that some processed foods actually work in your favor? Milk, breads and cereals are fortified to help you reach your daily intake of certain vitamins and minerals. Some foods have added fiber to aid in digestion and heart health. Even cutting up your veggies for convenience is a positive form of processing your foods.

So How Processed Is It?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods range on a scale from not-so-much processed to heavily processed:

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

It’s important to note that the more processed a food is from its original form – the more unhealthy it will be. Like in my apple example: An apple is healthier than apple pie.

When Processed Foods Turn Bad

When processed foods turn unhealthy is when things like added sugars, non-food additives, preservatives and fats (to name a few) are brought into play.

Adding sugars to foods is quite common – especially in low-fat food items (there is a reason low-fat foods still taste good). Soon enough, the added sugars will be placed on the Nutrition Facts Food Label (It has been passed, but won’t be implemented until summer of 2018) but until then, check the ingredients list for things like corn syrup, sugar, brown sugar, etc. You don’t want these to be found in the first 3 ingredients.

Non-food additives are things like dye, colorings, “flavor enhancers” and are found in the ingredients list. Things like Red Dye 7, etc are hopefully going to be a thing of the past, but they are still out there!

Sodium is added to many foods as a shelf stabilizer or preservative to make canned goods last longer. Limiting sodium is super important for heart health and overall health. Sodium makes you retain fluids too – which will make you feel super bloated.

The Takeaway

Processed does not equal bad! Be careful of the things you put into your body but also know that this term is used wildly wrong.

If you aren’t sure of 100% of the ingredients in a food you are eating, check the label. All ingredients are listed after the Nutrition Facts in the order of what is in there the most. If you can’t pronounce it – it’s most likely man-made or a non-food item.

Another tip is to try cooking more at home. When you do the cooking, you know exactly what is going into the recipe and you have more control over the types of foods you are eating.

Don’t be afraid of processed foods – we eat them every day! Just remember to be aware of HOW processed it is and any additive(s) that may be in there.

Knowledge is power 🙂