What are “Processed Foods”?


The term “processed foods” is thrown around in nearly every health article and food blog you can find. It’s no lie that the majority of foods found in groceries stores today are processed foods. But what are they? How do we know which ones are ok to consume and which are unhealthy? Here is a quick guide to what they are and the ones that are nutritious vs. the non-nutritious processed foods.

“Processed foods” are any foods that have been cooked, canned, bagged, pre cut, or enhanced with flavors before being packaged. These processes change the nutritional quality of the food in different ways which is why when you buy pre cooked frozen meals they are a lot worse nutritiously than if you were to cook them yourself. Frozen meals are going to have preservative chemicals, sugar and or salt added to them to enhance flavor and make them easy to cook and tasty. On the other hand though, you can have bagged spinach or cut pineapple and you don’t lose the nutritional qualities even though they are still considered “processed”.

The healthier of the processed foods are going to be any foods that don’t contain any or contain only a few additives. Bagged produce, canned fruits, canned vegetables, canned fish, milk, and nuts are amongst the healthiest of all processed foods. Some people don’t have the option to buy fresh produce instead of canned because of financial reasons so do not feel guilty if canned foods fit your budget and lifestyle better. Try and avoid canned items that have added salt and sugar to keep the nutritional quality of the foods higher. It’s a reality that most adults are very busy these days and growing all your own produce is not realistic. If that is the case for you, pre cut or pre washed bagged produce is not something that should be overlooked simply because it’s considered processed.

The less healthy processed foods are: hot dog wieners, lunchmeat, potato chips, chip dips, frozen foods, cereals, crackers, and many more items. Most items at the grocery stores, such as packaged cookies or flavored crackers, are much more processed than they are real. There are so few “real” ingredients in those products and the chemicals are very foreign to our bodies. This is the reason that highly processed foods, with little nutritional value, are not good for us to consume regularly. To think that we would live without ever consuming those types of items is unrealistic which is why is it typically advised to consume them in moderation. Eating prepackaged cookies once a month instead of daily, or sugary breakfast cereals once a week instead of daily are great changes to try and make. The reason being, your body would respond much more positively to “real” food items than all the chemicals that these processed food items contain. Processed foods have been linked to obesity, type II diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even some cancers. They are very detrimental to our health and should be very limited in our diets.

Processed foods are so popular in today’s stores and marketing that it is nearly impossible to avoid them. But being aware of what they are and how detrimental to our health they can be is very important. This information can help you navigate which have nutritional value and which don’t. I hope this has been very informative on processed foods, what they are the why there is so much talk about them.

— Jade Mitchell, Nutrition Educator

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