Everything You Need to Know About Processed Foods

When it comes to dietary demons, processed foods are getting a lot of buzz these days.

Consuming processed foods is being blamed for everything from an increased risk of developing obesity and heart disease to cancer and Type 2 diabetes, as well as a variety of other detrimental health effects. But is this villainous status really deserved?

The issue is more complicated than it seems because there isn’t a formal definition of processed foods. They reside on a spectrum: from minimally processed — such as canned peaches or yogurt — to ultra-processed, such as salty chips, hot dogs and packaged baked goods.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods include any food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, preserved, packaged or fortified with beneficial nutrients. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, anything that has been crushed, cut, chopped, diced, sliced, pitted, blended, pureed, juiced or dried is considered a processed food.

So, while processed foods include frozen mac and cheese or pizza, a bag of barbecue chips or a cheeseburger from a fast-food joint, they also include a loaf of whole-wheat bread, canned beans, a carton of pasteurized milk or jar of tomato sauce.

“Everything is processed unless you go into a corn field or to an apple tree and bite into that food right off the stalk,” says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor emeritus of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “Processing isn’t all bad. You can have a processed food that’s a whole food.”

Clearly, some processed foods are healthier than others.

“A bag of roasted peanuts is considered processed, but it’s fine,” says Abby Greenspun, a registered dietitian who specializes in disease prevention and weight management in Westport, Connecticut. “By contrast, honey-coated, chocolate-dipped peanuts obviously are more processed and worse for you.”

[READ: Ways to Eat Well and Save Money at Home]

Types of Processed Foods

Minimally processed foods

Some of these foods are processed at their peak freshness to lock in nutritional quality. In fact, when tomatoes are cooked (processed) then canned, they end up with more lycopene, an antioxidant, that’s available to the body than fresh tomatoes do, Ayoob points out.

Minimally processed foods include:

— Bagged lettuce and spinach.

— Pre-cut vegetables.

— Roasted nuts.

— Dried fruits.

— Canned, unsweetened fruits and unsalted vegetables and beans.

— Canned fish like tuna and salmon.

Some minimally processed foods, such as the ones listed above, make good-quality, nutritious foods convenient for busy people to use.

Processed foods

Towards the middle of the spectrum, processed foods may be fortified with important nutrients — such as calcium, vitamin D, folic acid or iron — that can help prevent chronic diseases, Ayoob notes.

Examples of processed foods include:

— Dairy and plant-based milk products, like cheese and yogurt.

Whole-wheat breads and pasta.

— Many breakfast cereals.

Nutritional shakes.

“The fortification of refined grains with folic acid caused the prevalence of neural tube defects — such as spina bifida — to plummet,” he explains. “That’s one of the best public health programs that was ever rolled out.”

Ultra-processed foods

At the far end of the spectrum are ultra-processed foods, also referred to as highly processed foods.

These include:

— Chips.

— Sugary breakfast cereals.


— Candy.

— Cookies.

— Meat products, such as deli meats and sausage.

— Instant noodles and soups.

— Fried foods.

Many food manufacturers formulate these foods in ways that appeal to the human palate’s “bliss point” — the optimal combination of sugar, fat and salt — that will make people want to keep eating them.”When the mix is right, food becomes more stimulating,” Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, noted in “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.” “Eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt makes us eat more foods high in sugar, fat and salt.”

In fact, researchers stated in the journal NPJ Science of Food that “when the processed food industry added a crunchy mouth feel to their bliss point formulations, a whole new generation of craveable foods was created.”

In other words, these hyper-palatable processed foods can hijack your appetite, causing you to lose control of how much you eat.

[READ: Foods We Eat Too Much of.]

Why Are Processed Foods Bad?

Consuming lots of ultra-processed foods can increase your risk of developing chronic health conditions. Processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods, have extra oil, sugar, salt, calories and preservatives. It’s a lot of added ingredients that don’t provide any nutritional value.

“You want to minimize empty calories in your diet from sweets and baked foods and beverages with lots of sugar but not much else,” Ayoob says.

The consumption of ultra-processed foods is particularly harmful for human health, as it has been shown to increase your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension. Research has linked a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods with a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity.

In a study in a 2019 issue of Cell Metabolism, researchers found that when adults who are slightly overweight followed a diet with ultra-processed foods for two weeks, they consumed approximately 500 more calories each day and gained weight compared to when they stuck with an unprocessed diet for two weeks. The effects kick in that quickly. The researchers concluded that limiting ultra-processed foods may offer an effective strategy for preventing and treating obesity.

The potential for harm doesn’t stop with weight gain. A study in a 2023 issue of JAMA Neurology found that adults with a higher daily consumption of ultra-processed foods have a faster rate of cognitive decline over time. And a study in a 2022 issue of BMJ found that men with a high consumption of ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer among men and women in the U.S.

[Read: Anti-Cancer Foods.]

How to Avoid Processed Foods

One way to curb your intake of processed foods is to get back to cooking at home. That means using whole foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, fish and other nutrient-rich ingredients.

Here are some strategies for avoiding processed foods:

Hydrate with water. Sugary bottled beverages — such as soda, sweetened tea and fruit juice — are notorious for being loaded with empty calories. Instead, quench your thirst with water. If you miss the carbonation from sodas, sparkling water is a great alternative. For a caffeine fix, brew your own tea and/or coffee at home, but skip the sugar and creamer.

Make smart food swaps. You can replace highly processed foods with healthy substitutes. For example, if you’re craving the crunchiness of chips, reach for slices of bell peppers or make your own kale chips by lightly seasoning kale leaves with salt and popping them in an air fryer or the oven. If you feel tempted to eat ice cream, satisfy your sweet tooth by freezing ripe bananas and blending them to make your own homemade healthy soft serve. Not only will these swaps satisfy your cravings, but you’ll sneak more fruits and vegetables into your diet.

Meal prep. If you’re too busy to cook, you can avoid giving in to the convenience of eating fast food meals by planning ahead of time and preparing your meals at home for the week. To help take the guesswork out of it, there are plenty of meal delivery services that can ship all the pre-portioned ingredients for you to make homemade meals — right to your doorstep.

Step away from the deli counter. The deli meats section is full of cold cuts, sausages and other processed meats. Instead, fill your shopping cart with protein from the grocery store’s meat and seafood department, where you’ll find smart alternatives, such as chicken, beef, salmon and shrimp. For plant-based proteins, try tempeh, tofu and chickpeas.

Can You Still Eat Processed Foods?

The reality is that processed foods are hard to avoid.

In fact, these types of foods are becoming more ubiquitous. A study in a 2022 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that intake of processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods, continuously increased among adults in the U.S. from 2001 to 2018. What’s more, research in BMJ Open found that ultra-processed foods comprise 58% of the calories consumed in the U.S.

If and when you opt for packaged foods, get into the habit of reading labels — both the Nutrition Facts Label and the ingredients list.

Here are some ways for how to choose healthy processed foods:

Be aware of added and hidden sugar

On the ingredients list, added sugars can go by different names including brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrate or any word that ends with -ose. If these appear among the first two or three ingredients listed, it means the product contains considerable amounts of sugar.

Keep in mind that some processed foods contain artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, can cause bloating and other digestive distress. World Health Organization guidelines from May discourage the use of artificial sweeteners for weight loss.

In July, the World Health Organization released another statement announcing that aspartame (an artificial sweetener) is possibly carcinogenic to humans. The artificial sweetener is widely used in processed foods including some diet drinks, breakfast cereals, ice cream and other packaged food products.

Watch out for sodium

It’s also wise to peruse the labels to find added salt.

“Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life,” says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of The Lifestyle Dietitian in Atlanta.

Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces contain added salt. Choose foods labeled “no salt added,” “low-sodium” or “reduced-sodium” to decrease the amount of salt you’re consuming from processed foods.

Avoid trans fats

Also known as trans-unsaturated fatty acids, trans fats are a type of dietary fat often found in processed foods. Although small trace amounts are naturally occurring in food, most health experts are concerned about trans fats when it is used in large amounts. Highly processed packaged foods — including cookies, donuts and crackers — and deep-fried foods are some of the top products with trans fats.

Consuming too much trans fats is associated with poor heart health, as they can raise the LDL “bad” cholesterol and lower HDL “good” cholesterol.

It may be hard to spot trans fats because they don’t appear on labels with those words. To find them, you should look for ingredients listed as “partially hydrogenated fat.”

Bottom Line

Ultimately, the goal isn’t to demonize or completely banish processed foods, Ayoob says, but to make more conscious decisions about consuming them.

Stick with minimally processed foods as much as you can, but remember: There’s nothing wrong with having chips or cookies occasionally if that’s what you really want.

“It’s about how you incorporate it as part of a healthy, balanced diet,” Ayoob adds.

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Everything You Need to Know About Processed Foods originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 08/21/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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