Processed foods have a stronghold on Western diets purely because of their convenience — and it helps that oftentimes they’re pretty tasty too. If you’ve consumed anything that has been canned, cooked, frozen, pasteurized, or packaged, you’ve eaten a processed item. But not all processed food items are created equal; some items such as canned veggies, frozen fruit, and pasteurized dairy products can be staples in a healthy diet. However, highly processed items can harm your health.
That’s why we spoke with Hai Nguyen, a dietetic intern at Texas Health Sports Medicine, to understand more about processed foods, which are OK to eat, and which you should avoid.
Understanding Processed Foods
Food processing is anything that is done to a raw food item to make it ideal for consumption.
“A food is considered processed when it is biologically, mechanically, or chemically manipulated to achieve certain qualities such as being safe-to-eat, extended shelf life, flavor and texture uniformity, etc.,” Nguyen explains.
But she adds that some of the additives in processed foods to achieve these qualities can be harmful to your health.
“It’s not the food that’s damaging, but rather what is done to the food prior to you eating it,” she says.
Keep in mind, most of the food we purchase nowadays has undergone some degree of processing, and not all processed foods are bad for your health. So it’s good to understand the difference between mechanical and chemical processing.
Mechanical processing pertains to the act of heating up, breaking down or pasteurizing foods in a mechanical way, such as grinding beef for hamburger meat or pasteurizing cow’s milk to kill off any harmful bacteria. Mechanical processing does not add chemicals or additional ingredients to the item, so the food does not tend to lose any of its nutritional value.
However, chemical processing tends to introduce artificial substances such as flavoring agents, colors and sweeteners. Many times, something will also be added to help increase the shelf-life of the item. These chemically processed foods are often referred to as highly processed.
Some examples of highly processed foods include:
- Frozen or ready meals
- Baked goods, including pizza, cakes, and pastries
- Packaged bread
- Processed cheese products
- Breakfast cereal
- Crackers and chips
- Candy and ice cream
- Instant noodles and soups
- Reconstituted or processed meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, lunch meat, nuggets, fish fingers, and bacon
- Sodas and other sweetened drinks
“Several studies have correlated ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of obesity and hypertension in kids,” Nguyen adds. “One that is particularly concerning is a study that showed even just a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in your diet was associated with a significant increase in the risks of breast cancer and overall cancer.”
How Can I Identify How Processed Something Is?
If almost everything you buy at the store has undergone some form of processing, how can you know just how much processing has been done to it and if it’s mechanical or chemical? Nguyen says any easy way is to read the label.
“If it seems like there are more ingredients than necessary or there are ingredients that are hard to pronounce, chances are, it is a processed food,” she says. “Another simple approach is to consider what foods can be grown naturally and eaten or be altered slightly to create the product.”
For example, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, nut butters, seeds, guacamole, hummus, and eggs can be grown naturally or very minimally processed to create the product. On the flip side, soft drinks, cookies, cakes, and candy cannot be grown naturally, and even if they contain organic or natural ingredients, they still require processing to get to their final form. (Sorry Wonka, no candy forest with a chocolate river here.)
Highly processed foods will also most likely have large amounts of sugar and/sodium, and often require little to no preparation, such as just needing to be zapped in the microwave or reheated, she adds.
Healthier Swaps for Highly Processed Items
We get it, it can be hard to let go of these foods because of their convenience and taste, especially when you’re on a budget and strapped for time to get a meal on the table. But Nguyen says nowadays a lot of grocers offer up options that are still highly convenient but nutritious.
“Try foods that are already prepared at your local grocery stores. Most will have fresh rotisserie chicken hot and ready to eat, as well as healthy sides like roasted vegetables and rice,” she says. “There are even fruits that are precut and portioned. Produce like carrots, spinach, broccoli, and sugar snap peas are readily available prewashed and ready to eat right out of the bag.”
Another great option is to head to the freezer section and opt for veggies that can be microwaved straight in the bag. A lot of times, frozen vegetables are picked at the peak of freshness, to ensure you’re getting the most nutritional value. If you’re looking for less processed meats, look for fresh cuts found at the meat counter, which are often just mechanically processed. If you can, try to find a local butcher who gets their supply from local ranches as well. If you’re looking for a good swap for lunch meat, try tuna salad, chicken breast or even hard-boiled eggs.
Nguyen offers up these additional swaps:
- Salad dressings like ranch: try olive oil and balsamic vinegar or make your own Ranch dressing with plain Greek yogurt and Ranch seasoning mix
- French fries: try baked potatoes
- Ice cream: try fruit smoothies
- Cheetos: try string cheese and grapes
- Potato chips: try carrot chips and hummus
- Croutons: try nuts or seeds
- Sugary breakfast cereal: try oatmeal with fresh fruit
- Microwave popcorn: try freshly made popcorn topped where you can control the toppings and flavorings
If you do have time to meal prep, Nguyen says that is another really great option that can ensure a healthy meal or snack when you need it without taking up a huge amount of time. Best of all, you can get the family involved, which Nguyen says has been shown to get kids excited about meals.
“Plan and make full meals ahead of time, refrigerate or freeze them, and heat up when you need a quick meal,” she says. “For busy parents with kids, involve them in the meal prep process and make an activity out of it. Some studies have shown children to be more accepting of vegetables when they participate in the selection and preparation of it.”
Last but not least are meal subscription services, which Nguyen notes may be the most convenient but not always the most cost-efficient option.
“Although by definition, these dishes are considered processed, they should not be viewed as such,” she explains. “Many are made with minimal preparation and little to no added preservatives since most companies endorse ethically sourced and healthy ingredients. Really the only concern for these services is cost-related because the meals can get expensive quickly.”
While processed foods may always be a timesaving option, healthier swaps can be just as convenient and better for you, but remember — not all processed foods are created equal. Learn how to read labels and prioritize items with short ingredient lists or that have ingredients you can pronounce/are not complicated. And while it may take some planning, cooking at home and preparing your meals is better for you in the long run.
“Cooking at home is better for your health and wallet when compared to most processed and all ultra-processed foods,” Nguyen adds. “Planning ahead, preparing, and portioning meals beforehand is a great way to nix the reliance on convenience foods.”
*reviewed by Brittney Bearden, a registered dietitian and sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine