How to Eat Healthier: A Guide to What Processed Foods Are

What do frozen burritos, bagged spinach, canned tuna, olive oil, granola bars, and bagged spinach have in common? They’re all processed foods. Nonetheless, we have been bombarded with warnings about the dangers of eating processed foods. Indeed, these foods have been blamed for our country’s obesity epidemic, rising blood pressure levels, and a rise in type 2 diabetes. However, as the examples above show, processed foods are more than just packaged ramen noodles, potato chips, and drive-thru chicken nuggets. This article will help you distinguish between processed foods to avoid and those that can play a role in a balanced, healthy diet.

What Exactly Is Processed Food?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines processed foods as any food that has been intentionally altered before consumption. Processed foods include those that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, or have had their nutritional composition altered through fortification (adding folic acid to bread products or calcium and vitamin D to milk and juices). It also includes foods that have been kept (like beef jerky or canned fruit) or made in different ways (like fermenting).

Processed foods range from minimally processed to heavily processed and include:

Foods that are only minimally processed, like spring mix lettuce in a bag, cut-up vegetables, and roasted nuts, are just made ahead of time to save time.

Frozen fruit and vegetables, canned tomatoes, and canned tuna are examples of foods that are processed at their peak to preserve nutritional quality and freshness.

Foods like jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, and cake mixes have ingredients like sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives that add taste and texture.

Cookies, breakfast cereals, and deli meat, for example, are more heavily processed.

Meals that are already made, like frozen pizza and dinners that you can heat in the microwave, are often the most heavily processed foods.

How To Include The Healthiest Processed Foods In Your Diet

Processed foods can be useful and convenient when it comes to preparing healthy meals. Unfortunately, most Americans get far too many calories from heavily processed foods and far too few from lightly processed foods.

The key to eating the healthiest processed foods is knowing how to tell the difference between those that have been lightly processed and those that have been heavily processed. Lightly processed foods are those that can be recognized in their natural states, such as pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna, and frozen vegetables. Highly processed foods, such as potato chips and crackers, are not in their natural state, as are foods that are not naturally occurring, such as sodas, cookies, and candy. Understanding the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list is the best way to understand where foods fall on the food-processing spectrum. This is particularly important when searching for hidden sugars, sodium, and fats.

Sugars Added

Added sugars are any sugars that are not naturally occurring in food and have been artificially added. Lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk and dairy products, is abundant in these products. Fruited yogurt, on the other hand, contains sugar. Sugar is added to many products, including bread, fruit drinks, granola, protein bars, tomato sauce, canned or boxed soups, nut and seed butters, salad dressings, protein powders, and sports drinks. Adding sugar names to food labels includes dextrose, fructose, raw sugar, nectar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, and fruit juice concentrate. Examine the ingredient list of a product and look for added sugar in the first two or three ingredients. Beginning in July 2018, the Nutrition Facts label will include grams of added sugar.


To preserve foods and extend their shelf life, a significant amount of salt is often added to highly processed foods. They are significant sources of sodium in our diets. To reduce your sodium intake, choose foods labeled “no salt,” “low sodium,” or “reduced sodium.” We need sodium, but most of us eat more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend, which is less than 2,300 milligrams per day.


Added fats can help make foods more shelf-stable while also adding texture and flavor. While trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, are decreasing in processed foods, they can still be found when reading food labels. The FDA banned artificial trans fats from the food supply, but food manufacturers have until 2018 to comply. In the ingredient list, look for zero grams of trans fat and no partially hydrogenated oils.

The following are some tips for selecting healthy processed foods:

Frozen fruits and vegetables: If fresh produce is unavailable, or if you frequently find a “soup” of wilted and spoiled produce at the bottom of your refrigerator drawer, buy frozen fruits and vegetables instead. Because of the freezing process (blanched and then quick-frozen), many nutrients (vitamins C and E) in frozen produce are the same or even higher than in fresh produce.

Fermented foods contain probiotics, which may help strengthen the immune system and relieve constipation.

Sprouted foods: Whole grains and beans are living seeds that can sprout with the right amount of moisture and temperature. These foods are easily digestible, have little effect on blood sugar levels, and contain more protein, fiber, and B vitamins than their non-sprouted counterparts. Look for the word “sprouted” on the food package.

Processed foods have a place in our hectic lives. Prepackaged fruits and vegetables are a quick and easy way to eat healthily. Also, processing techniques like fermentation and sprouting can help us get nutrients that we wouldn’t normally eat.

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