Processed Foods: What are the Facts?

Patient Expert

One current approach to diet is to eat “real foods” and avoid “processed foods.” There’s a lot of good sense in that approach. But what, exactly, is meant by the term “processed foods”?

I think we’d all agree that foods that come in a box, take-out food or prepackaged meals that just require heating are all processed foods. But how about some others we think of as basic foods like milk, orange juice and bread?

The technical definition of a processed food might surprise you. It means “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat. It can be as simple as freezing or drying food to preserve nutrients and freshness, or as complex as formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients,” says the International Food Information Council.

That means if you pick some green beans from your garden and freeze them, technically they’ve become a processed food. In other words, “processed food” is not a synonym for “junk food.” In fact, beans that go right from the plant to your plate would contain the most nutrients, but most of us are not able to eat like that. So we must consider other categories. Food scientists have come up with a range of categories including “minimally processed,” “basic processed,” “moderately processed” and “highly processed.” Most of us don’t want to classify all our food in such detail.

“Minimally processed” food includes washed and packaged fruits and vegetables, roasted coffee and roasted nuts. Then there are canned and frozen foods. Most of us would consider such foods good choices. Sometimes frozen vegetables are actually healthier than fresh ones that have been shipped long distances because they are often frozen right on the field after being picked and, thus, haven’t sat around in the heat for a long time.

Next would come single-ingredient foods that had been processed, like flour and sugar. Then foods combined with several ingredients, including flavorings, preservatives, colorings and other ingredients in amounts too low to require adding to the ingredients list. Such products often have added salt, sugar and fat. Examples would include tomato sauce and salad dressings. In general, the fewer the ingredients, the better.

Finally would come ready-to-eat foods and deli foods, which most would agree are processed foods.

But how about milk? That’s a natural food that is healthy. But milk is pasteurized, and most contain added vitamins. So unless you get your milk from the farm, it’s a processed food. So is yogurt, even plain yogurt. Orange juice is condensed and then frozen, so it’s processed. Even meat can be processed if it’s smoked, like ham and bacon, or injected with something to make it juicier. Deli meats are clearly processed.

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So what can we do if we want to eliminate processed foods? In truth, totally eliminating processed foods would be almost impossible. If we live in Manhattan it would be difficult to get milk right from the cow, and, without freezing, much of our food would be spoiled before it reached us. Without pasteurization, some of our milk could cause disease. Brucellosis is not pretty.

The answer is not to take the concept of avoiding processed foods to the extreme. The less processed a food is, the better. But there’s nothing wrong with “minimally processed” foods like bagged salad greens or frozen spinach. Just try to avoid the highly processed foods like frozen entrees, sodas, pizza, chips and the like. One study estimated that up to 61 percent of the food eaten by Americans would fall into the “highly processed” category. However, this study used a database that estimated nutrient content by scanning barcodes and hence did not include foods like raw vegetables and meat that had no barcodes.

We’re often advised to shop the outer aisles of the grocery store, where the least processed foods are, and this makes sense. But I enjoy cruising the middle aisles of the store and looking at the high prices on the boxed junk food that is sold there and thinking of how much money I’m saving by not buying that stuff. Then I treat myself to a good steak.

More useful articles on eating:

Soft Food and Insulin Resistance

How Should We Eat?

Are Gut Bacteria Controlling What We Eat?