A Guide to Processed Foods

Poor, Fine, Good, Better, Best

What do bagged spinach, canned tuna, olive oil, granola bars and frozen  burritos have in common?  They all are processed foods. Yet, we have been flooded/overloaded with  warnings about  the  harmful  effects  of eating  processed foods. In fact, these foods have been blamed for our nation’s (being very overweight) widespread disease, high blood pressure rates and the rise of type 2 (disease where blood sugar swings wildly). 

Based on the examples above, however, you can  see that processed foods are more than packaged ramen noodles,  potato chips and drive-thru chicken nuggets. This article helps you tell/show the difference between the processed foods you should be careful  of  and  those that can play a role in a balanced, healthy diet.

What is Processed Food?

Processed foods include any food that has been (in a carefully-planned way) changed in some way before consumption. Examples of processing include foods that are cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in (related to vitamins, protein, etc., in food)  composition through  strengthening (adding folic acid to bread products or (silvery metal/important nutrient)  and vitamin D to  milk and juices). It  also includes foods that are  preserved (beef jerky or canned fruit)  or  prepared in different ways (fermentation). 

Processed foods range from slightly to heavily processed, including:

  • Slightly processed foods – such as bagged spring mix lettuce, cut-up vegetables and roasted nuts–are simply pre-prepped  for  convenience.
  • Foods that are processed at their peak to preserve (related to vitamins, protein, etc., in food) quality  and freshness and  include  frozen fruit and vegetables, canned tomatoes and canned tuna.
  • Shook/hit/irritated pasta sauce, salad dressing and cake mixes are examples of foods that contain ingredients such as sweeteners,  spices,  oils, colors and (chemicals that stop things from rotting),  which are  added for flavor and texture.
  • Ready-to-eat foods, such as cookies,  breakfast cereals, and deli meat, are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods on the processed food spectrum are often pre-made  meals including frozen pizza  and microwaveable  dinners.

How to Incorporate the Best Processed Foods Into Your Diet 

Processed foods can be helpful and convenient for preparing healthy meals.Unfortunately, most people  get too many calories  from the  more heavily  processed  categories and not enough from lightly processed foods.

The key to using/eating/drinking the healthiest processed foods is to be able to tell the difference between those that have been  lightly  processed against/compared to/or those that are heavily processed. Basically, lightly processed foods are ones you can recognize in their  original form such as pre-cut apple slices, hard- boiled eggs, canned tuna  and frozen vegetables. Those that are highly processed are not in their  original form such as potato chips and crackers, or foods that are not  naturally happening such as sodas, cookies and candy. The best way to  understand where foods fall along the food-processing spectrum  is by understanding the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list.  This is especially important when looking for hidden sugars, sodium and fats.

Added Sugars 

Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally happening in the food and has been added manually. For example, milk and dairy have  a large amount of milk sugar, which is a naturally happening sugar in these products.  However,  sugars are added to fruited yogurt.  Be aware that sugars are added to a wide variety of 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. When looking at the food label, some examples of names of added sugars  are dextrose, fruit sugar, raw sugar, nectar, honey, high-fruit sugar corn syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar and fruit juice (focus one’s effort/ increase/ mainly study).  Read a product’s ingredient list and look for added sugars  among the first  two or three ingredients.  Beginning in July 2018, grams of added sugar will be included in the Nutrition Facts Label. 


Highly processed foods often have a substantial amount of salt added to preserve foods and extend shelf life. In fact, they are major contributors to sodium in our diets. Therefore, choose foods labeled no salt, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease your sodium consumption. We need some sodium, but we often consume more than the Dietary Guidelines for American’s recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams per day.


Added fats can help make foods more shelf-stable and give them texture and taste. While trans fats, which raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels, are on the decline in processed foods, you still might find them when reading food labels. The Food and Drug Administration banned artificial trans fats from the food supply, but food companies have until 2018 to comply. Look for zero grams of trans fats and no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list.

Below is a list of strategies for choosing processed foods that are good for you:

  1. Frozen vegetables and fruits: If fresh produce is not available or if you often find a “soup” of wilted and spoiled produce at the bottom of your refrigerator drawer, purchase frozen fruits and vegetables instead. Because of the process used to freeze produce (blanched and then quick-frozen), many of the nutrients (vitamins C and E) are the same or even higher in frozen produce as compared to fresh.
  2. Fermented foods: Foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh contain probiotics, which may help bolster the immune system and relieve constipation.
  3. Sprouted foods: Whole grains and beans are living seeds, and some processing with the right amount of moisture and temperature can make them sprout. These foods have been found to be easily digestible, have a minimal effect on blood-sugar levels, and contain more protein, fiber, and B vitamins than their non-sprouted counterparts. Look for “sprouted” on the food package.

Clearly, processed foods have a place in our busy lives. Prepackaged fruits and vegetables are a convenient way to eat healthfully. In addition, methods of processing, such as fermentation and sprouting can help us obtain the nutrients we wouldn’t otherwise be consuming.

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