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Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid

Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid

Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid
Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur. It's blamed for obesity rates, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple also are processed foods.

While some processed foods should be consumed less often, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here's how to sort the nutritious from the not-so-nutritious.

What Is Processed Food?

"Processed food" includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we're processing food.

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally 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.
The Positives of Processed

Processed food can help you eat more nutrient-dense foods. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables and pre-washed, bagged spinach are quality convenience foods for busy people.