What Exactly are Processed Foods?
Processed foods are raw, whole foods that have been altered in some way during manufacturing. Processing foods might be as simple as washing and cutting the foods – or adding extra ingredients, fillers, preservatives, sugar, or fat to enhance flavor, texture, color, or shelf life. Essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, probiotics, omega-3s, and fiber, may be lost or added during processing.
Not all processed foods are bad for you. But generally speaking, whole (unprocessed or minimally processed) foods are the most nutritious.
Are There Benefits of Processed Foods?
Some processed foods can add value to your diet or lifestyle. Examples of possible benefits of (some) processed foods include:
- Milk is often fortified with extra vitamins and minerals – and pasteurized to eliminate the risk of foodborne illness.
- Plant milks and juices might be fortified with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, or omega-3 fatty acids.
- Fruit packed in its own juice has a longer shelf-life than fresh fruits.
- Canned meats, such as tuna, have a longer shelf life than fresh meats.
- Pre-washed, pre-cut fresh veggies and fruits add convenience for busy families.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables keep longer than fresh produce.
- Hard-boiled, peeled eggs add convenience to busy lifestyles.
- Extra virgin cooking oils are minimally processed and healthy for your heart.
Keep in mind when looking for minimally processed fruits and veggies, opt for those that are raw with the peel still intact to minimize nutrients lost during processing.
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Processed Foods You Should Avoid
Heavily processed foods are generally less healthy for you than minimally processed and whole foods. Highly processed foods are NOT in their original form. These foods often contain added sugar, preservatives, fillers, extra sodium, and other ingredients not naturally present in whole foods. Examples include:
- Sodas and other sugary drinks
- Candy, cookies, cakes, and ice cream
- Doughnuts and other baked goods
- Potato chips, crackers, and pretzels
- Fried foods
- Frozen pizza
- Prepackaged frozen dinners
- White bread, white rice, and many breakfast cereals
- Some cooking oils
- Processed meats
- Dressings, gravies, and other sauces
Examples of processed meats include ham, sausage, bacon, pepperoni, cold cut meats, and hot dogs. These meats are often blended with other animal parts and contain added sodium, preservatives, or fillers. They may have been smoked, fermented, or cured during processing.
The American Cancer Society reports that eating 50 grams of processed meats daily, which equates to just one hot dog or four strips of bacon, increases your risk of colorectal cancer by almost 20%!
Choose Whole Foods When Possible
When choosing nutritious foods to maximize health and achieve or maintain a healthy weight, pick whole foods whenever possible. A whole food is a food that comes in its original form. Examples include:
- Raw fruits
- Raw vegetables
- Unaltered (unprocessed) whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Fresh, organic cuts of very lean meat, poultry, fish, or seafood
- Unprocessed plant oils
Using whole, organic foods during food prep at home reduces the chance of ingesting hidden additives or chemicals that can leach into foods from their packaging.
Making Smart Food Choices to Optimize Health
Choosing minimally processed foods involves making simple food swaps for foods you normally might eat.
Food Swaps that Minimize Processed Foods
The list below provides examples of easy ways to cut back on processed foods:
- Choose extra virgin oils in place of highly processed plant oils
- Choose black coffee, unsweetened tea, or water in place of soda
- Eat whole fruits and vegetables vs. canned produce when possible
- Pick whole grains rather the white bread, white rice, and other refined grains
- Choose organic, fresh meats vs. processed meats
- Cook your own food vs. buying prepackaged frozen dinners, frozen pizza, and restaurant foods
- Flavor foods with oils and herbs rather than white sauces, gravies, and other dressings
- Pick natural cheese vs. processed cheeses
- Eat nuts and seeds vs. chips, crackers, and pretzels
- Choose fresh fruit instead of baked goods, ice cream, and other sweet treats
- Pick whole-grain cereals with no added sugar vs. sugary cereals
- Check ingredient labels on granola bars, protein bars, and protein powders
- Purchase organic foods when possible
Food labels can be misleading, as products claiming to be “natural” may contain hidden ingredients or be exposed to antibiotics, growth hormones, or pesticides during processing.
You won’t always know how foods are processed during manufacturing, but check ingredient lists on food labels to reduce or eliminate highly processed foods from your diet.
What to Watch Out for on Food Labels
Not all foods provide nutrition labels, but many that don't are whole foods (such as fresh produce). For foods you eat that come with nutrition facts labels, look at the ingredients list. The first ingredient listed is present in the largest amount.
As a rule, if you aren’t sure what an ingredient is, it could be a preservative or other additive. The following list of common food additives may be present in highly processed foods:
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- Sodium nitrite
- Sodium nitrate
- Sodium benzoate
- Sodium phosphate
- Artificial food coloring (yellow #5, red #3, etc.)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Guar gum
- Xanthan gum
- Artificial flavoring
- Hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
- Brominated vegetable oil
- Potassium bromate
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
- Caramel coloring
- Cane juice
- Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a more extensive food additive list. These and other ingredients are added to foods during processing to enhance flavor, emulsify mixtures, change texture, add color, sweeten, increase saltiness, extend shelf life, reduce bacterial growth, or keep foods moist and tender.
Are Whole Foods Organic?
Just because a food is a whole food doesn't mean it’s organic. Fresh meats and milk may come from animals treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and fresh produce might have been grown in fields treated with pesticides and herbicides – if these foods weren't organically grown. Because of this, some people prefer to eat only organic foods, which are free from:
- Growth hormones
- Genetically modified foods/ingredients
- Other additives
In other words, choosing organic foods means you’re lowering your risk of ingesting chemicals and other additives that may lurk in non-organic foods. But not all organic foods are 100% organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture established the following guidelines for organic food labeling:
- Made from organic = contains at least 75% organic ingredients
- Organic = contains at least 90% organic ingredients
- 100% organic = processed using approved organic methods and all organic ingredients
Just because a food is organic doesn't mean it’s healthy or a whole food. Essential nutrients can get lost during organic food processing, and these foods may contain sodium or added sugar, so always check the ingredient label to be sure.
How Much Sodium is Okay?
Nearly all processed foods contain added sodium to enhance flavor or increase shelf life. Sodium is an essential nutrient your body requires daily to function properly. However, ingesting too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and a higher risk of heart disease.
When reading nutrition facts labels on processed foods, you’ll see the amount of sodium listed in milligrams per serving. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium in your diet to no more than 2,300 milligrams daily, and no more than 1,500 milligrams per day if you have high blood pressure. To give you an idea of how much sodium is in table salt, use the following guideline:
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt = 575 milligrams of sodium
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt = 1,150 milligrams of sodium
- 1 teaspoon of salt = 2,300 milligrams of sodium
Working out regularly (especially if you sweat a lot during workouts) helps your body excrete excess sodium.
How Much Added Sugar Can I Have?
As a rule, reduce added sugar in your diet as much as possible to optimize health. However, it can be difficult to eliminate added sugar from your diet entirely as it’s present in numerous processed foods in a variety of forms, such as:
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- High fructose corn syrup
- White granulated sugar
- Raw sugar
- Brown sugar
- Maple syrup
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Confectioner’s powdered sugar
- Malt syrup
- Invert sugar
- Cane juice
The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 allow some leeway for added sugar but encourages you to limit it as much as possible (less than 10% of your total calorie intake, or less than 50 grams daily when eating 2,000 calories). When following a 2,000-calorie meal plan, the USDA allows for 260 calories from food sources of your choice.
Chemicals that May Lurk in Foods
Even if foods aren’t processed or are minimally processed, chemicals can still make their way into these foods. Examples of harmful chemicals commonly found in small amounts in certain foods include:
- PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury are present in fish and seafood living in polluted waters.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates can leach into foods from plastic packaging and some food cans.
- Lead may be present in tap water or foods prepared with tap water.
- Other chemicals can leach into foods grown in polluted soils.
While there isn’t necessarily a way to avoid chemicals in foods entirely, even if you only eat organic foods, there are numerous ways you can cut back on these chemicals:
- Choose low-mercury fish and seafood– such as salmon, canned light tuna, cod, and shrimp.
- Pick fresh produce vs. canned foods or foods packaged in plastic.
- Look for food packages listed as “BPA free.”
- Drink filtered tap water, and have your tap water tested.
- Avoid leaving bottled water in the sun or heat.
- Don't prepare food with unfiltered tap water.
- Air pop your popcorn rather than using microwavable popcorn bags.
Following these simple tips can reduce the harmful substances you and your family ingest, and maximize your health.
Do Additives and Chemicals Cause Health Problems?
Food additives and chemicals that leach into foods from environmental pollution, food cans containing BPA, and plastic packaging could indeed increase your risk of cancer and other health problems when consumed in large amounts.
In fact, some additives approved for use in the United States have been shown to cause cancer in animal studies.
- Increasing your consumption of highly processed foods by 10% is associated with a greater than 10% risk of overall cancer, say researchers who conducted a study published in 2018 in BMJ.
- The American Cancer Society says the link between processed meats and cancer may be due to sodium nitrite used as a preservative in these meats, and BPA in plastic packaging appears to increase cancer risks.
- BPA may negatively affect the development and behavior of infants and young children exposed to it during pregnancy and early childhood, according to Stanford Children’s Health.
- Mercury is a neurotoxin. Fetuses (during pregnancy) and young children exposed to too much mercury might experience neurological and cognitive delays during development.
- Ingesting too much lead can lead to cognitive, behavioral, and other developmental delays in children.
- Certain substances (such as saccharin) are approved for use in the U.S. despite the fact they are linked with cancer in lab rats.
The bottom line is research is ongoing to determine which health problems food additives and chemicals cause, and to what extent. The FDA usually bans substances if they caused cancer or other serious health problems in animal studies.
Eating Clean in a World of Prepackaged Foods
Food additives and chemicals aren’t usually harmful in small amounts. However, it’s difficult to determine which amount of these substances, if any, really is safe.
While you can’t always avoid additives entirely, do the best you can by:
- Choosing whole, organic foods
- Avoiding processed and prepackaged foods when possible
- Reading nutrition facts and ingredient lists on food labels
- Knowing how to plan nutritious meals and menus
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Writer, The Fit Father Project
A 15-year freelance writing veteran, Erin is registered dietitian and health educator who is passionate about health, fitness and disease prevention. Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife and mom of two beautiful children.
*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on how to avoid processed foods.