When you hear “processed food,” what do you think of? Chances are, your mind immediately pictures a pack of cookies, a bag of chips and other tasty forms of junk food and snacks.
But did you know that most of the food we eat is actually processed food? It’s true! Some is a good source of nutrition, but there are definitely some types of processed food that you want to avoid.
How can you tell which is which? Stick around to find out.
What is processed food?
When you hear or read about processed foods, it’s usually negative. And for good reason. A lot of processed food isn’t very nutrient dense, nor does it provide stellar health benefits. But there’s more to processed food than just junk food.
According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, “Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.”
So, processed food can include an incredibly wide variety of foods – from a TV dinner to a bag of frozen berries. In fact, there’s a good chance that you have lots of processed foods in your kitchen cupboards as you read this.
A can of beans? Jarred food? Food with health or nutrition claims? Fortified foods, such as cereals or breads? A piece of organic beef? All of these foods are actually processed foods.
Processed food is such a staple in our diet that it’s hard to imagine life with it. And to be honest, food processing has been going on for centuries. Before modern methods were developed, people used several different processing approaches to extend the shelf life of their food.
Here are some common ways people have and still do process their foods:
- Fermenting: Sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir
- Drying: Fruits, legumes, tomatoes
- Using salt: Fish, meat, olives
We can still obtain fermented, dried and salted foods. But thanks to all of the advances in technology, we can also enjoy foods that are fortified, frozen and canned, too.
On top of these methods, some modern processed food is entirely new to the human diet. And we’ll get into that soon.
5 different types of processed food
Not all processed food is the same. Some foods get a lot of processing, but others are minimally processed. Let’s take a quick look at each of the five types of processed food and examples for each one.
- Minimal processing: fruits or vegetables that are washed and packaged
- Processing to preserve as many nutrients as possible: canned tuna, frozen vegetables
- Processing includes added ingredients to boost safety, flavor and even how the food looks: rice and baking mixes
- Processing to avoid preparation: Cereal, lunch meats
- Processing for increased freshness and time efficiency: frozen meals and prepared foods
Unless you live on a farm, it’s safe to say that on most days, you’re eating some type of processed food at every meal.
How does food processing change food?
You might have believed that processed food is bad. But thank goodness for processed food. Yes, it changes food before it gets to us, but some of these changes are amazingly convenient and 100% necessary.
Just think about these processed foods and what life would be like without processing.
- Flour: Before flour becomes flour, the whole grains are cleaned and ground up into a product you can bake bread or cakes with. Can you imagine doing all that work yourself? Processing grains makes them far more accessible.
- Roasted nuts: Before you bought a bag of your favorite roasted almonds, the shell was removed and the nuts were flavored, toasted and packaged. And while you could just skip all this processing, raw nuts can actually be problematic due to the phytic acid they contain.
- Canned tuna: Unless you buy a fresh tuna steak at the fish counter, you’re probably buying canned tuna. And the fish was caught, cut and packaged to produce a safe and convenient option.
- Coffee: Most of us drink drip coffee, and as simple as coffee is, it actually goes through a very detailed process.
These are only four processed food examples, but as you can see, processed food isn’t bad and unhealthy in and of itself. In many ways, we’re lucky our diets include so many processed foods.
Since we can’t always buy fresh, local foods, and since we’re used to having foods in our fridge and pantry, our lifestyles would be completely different without processed foods.
But that’s not to say that all processed foods are made equally. Some are quite good for you, and others are problematic. So, let’s dive in and talk about the pros and cons of processed food.
3 common offenders in processed food
One of the biggest problems with some processed food is that it’s loaded with sodium, sugar, and fat – in some cases, you get all three in the same food!
Sodium is a common additive in canned goods, but too much salt is not very healthy. According to Harvard University, too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, and therefore, more serious cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack and stroke.
Sugar is an even bigger problem, and it’s not just in sweet foods. Instead, it’s used in practically everything, from pasta sauces, bread, condiments and so much more. Sugar can contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and inflammation.
And while dietary fat isn’t something to avoid, processed food often contains trans fat or hydrogenated oils. And these are, without question, the worst fats you can consume. Trans fats can increase heart disease and stroke risk, along with type 2 diabetes, cancer and inflammation throughout the body.
Therefore, because some processed foods end up with these three common offenders, they’re definitely not a healthy food to put on your plate.
7 processed foods to always avoid
I know, I know. These are super convenient, but they also contain each of those three offenders we just talked about. One small, frozen dinner has too much sodium, fat, and sugar for one meal. So, avoid these at all costs.
Nothing beats bacon, but one of the reasons why it’s so good is because it’s packed with saturated animal fats and sodium, not to mention nitrates, which have been connected to cancer.
When you give up butter because of saturated fats and opt for margarine, you’re actually eating a much more unhealthy type of fat: trans fats.
If you want to avoid butter, that’s fine, but it’s best to find a plant-based spread that’s free of trans fat and hydrogenated oils.
These might seem like a good idea, but along with whole grains, there’s a lot of sugar – far too much for that little bar and not enough of anything else to keep you fueled and satiated for very long.
There are two reasons why instant ramen is a big No. First of all, they contain an exorbitant amount of sodium, and we know that this can wreak havoc on cardiovascular health.
Secondly, instant ramen is nothing more that simple carbohydrates that give you a quick rush of energy and very little else.
Condiments and salad dressings
These are super convenient processed foods, but they’re often a clever formula of sugar and sodium.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to make your own salad dressing with fresh ingredients (or make sure you buy pure nice organic dressing). And with a little effort, you can even make your own ketchup and mayonnaise, too.
You can eat your popcorn, but whatever you do, do not put it in the microwave. That’s because it releases a type of chemical called perfluoroalkyls, which has been linked to health problems, according to the CDC.
A great alternative is to toast your own popcorn on the stovetop. It’s quick and easy, and you might even prefer it.
7 processed foods to enjoy
Now, you know which processed foods to scratch off your shopping list. To replace them, here are seven top processed foods to enjoy.
Normally, we think of processing as something that makes food less nutritious, but that’s definitely not the case when it comes to yogurt.
Through the fermentation process, milk becomes enriched with healthy probiotics – something that’s great for digestive health and your entire microbiome.
Unsweetened almond milk
There are lots of almond milks available, so you need to be careful when selecting this type of milk. That’s because true almond milk only requires almonds, water and maybe some salt. So, if you can find this type of almond milk, you’re golden.
Otherwise, try to avoid almond milks, as they’re usually full of gums, sweeteners and not many almonds.
Sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi
Like yogurt, these fermented vegetables provide you with a tart serving of gut-friendly bacteria and probiotics. Look for varieties with low sodium content and minimal additives.
You might feel bad if you opt for frozen veggies, but they’re a good choice, especially if you can’t get your hands on fresh local produce. That’s because they’re packed and frozen at optimal times, leaving you with a food that still has a lot of nutrition to offer.
Normally, canned legumes go through minimal processing. Usually, you get beans, salt, and water. Anything else is not always necessary or healthy.
What’s more, canned legumes provide you with a healthy source of carbohydrates and proteins for a quick and easy meal solution.
Tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene, which believe it or not, is actually better for you when it’s cooked than when it’s raw. So, you’re actually better off grabbing tomatoes sauce instead of raw tomatoes.
Just be sure to check the ingredient list to avoid a product loaded with sugar, sodium and other unnecessary ingredients.
Veggie burgers can go either way. If you purchase one loaded with artificial ingredients, cornstarch and ingredients you can’t even pronounce, just put it back.
But now, you can get your hands on healthy veggie burgers made with actual beans, vegetables, plant flours, seeds, and nuts. And that’s the kind of processed veggie burger to enjoy.
How to decide good versus bad processed food
We’ve only given a handful of processed food examples out of literally thousands. So, at this point, you might be wondering how you can make the best decision when you go grocery shopping.
Here are three tips to steer you in the right direction:
- Read the ingredient list: Food labels can be clever and deceiving. But don’t let that fool you. To know if a processed food is good for you, look at the ingredients. If you’re not familiar with a term, look it up. Or, look for something with fewer ingredients.
- Check the nutrition facts: You’ll remember that sodium, sugar, and fat were three ingredients that show up in a lot of unhealthy processed foods. So, check the nutrition facts to see what kind and how much of each one there is. When you look at the “percentage of daily value”, you’ll quickly see if you’re going in over your head with salt, sugar and/or fat.
- Keep it simple: Some foods are really jazzed up. Think flavored rice mixes, breakfast cereals, elaborate sauces, spreads, dressings, etc. And typically, the more flavors, additives, and preservatives in a food, the more questionable it can be. Here’s where sugar, sodium, fat, problematic gums, fillers, binders and more get hidden. So, just keep it simple when it comes to processed foods.
It’s hard to imagine life without processed foods. And you don’t have to. Sure, some are pretty bad for your health and wellbeing, but there are others that make healthy living much more feasible. Just use some discretion when you shop and you’re already off to a great start.