You can’t really avoid it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Processed food is food that’s changed in any way from its natural state. That includes washing, canning, freezing, or adding ingredients to it. Baking, cooking, or preparing it counts as processing, too.
Canning or freezing some fruits and vegetables can help them stay fresh for a long time. Pasteurizing milk and cheese lengthens their shelf life. Similarly, vacuum-packing can keep meat from spoiling. All of these also help cut down on waste.
Benefits: Healthy Eating
Washing and bagging vegetables like lettuce and spinach makes them easier to prepare and eat. Canning fruits in water or their own juice locks in freshness and nutrients. Added ingredients like fiber, calcium, and vitamin D can also make some foods better for you.
Other Healthy Processed Foods
In addition to fruits and vegetables, other processed foods that can be part of a healthy diet include tuna and salmon in cans or ready-to-eat pouches, yogurt, cottage cheese, and roasted nuts.
What Is Heavily Processed Food?
Heavily -- or ultra -- processed foods have unhealthy ingredients added to make them more appealing or make them last longer. Those ingredients include things like salt, sugar, artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives. One study found that ultra-processed foods make up about 60% of the calories in the American diet.
Unhealthy Processed Foods
The worst processed foods for your diet are typically ready-to-eat and low in nutrients. They include cookies, sugary drinks, deli meats, and frozen pizza, salty snacks like chips, and most breakfast cereals. These foods may taste good, but they’re loaded with added ingredients that aren’t good for you.
What to Watch For: Sodium
Sodium is often used to keep food fresh. Even if you’re careful about adding it to your food, it’s probably already there, thanks to processing. Americans get close to 70% of the salt they eat from processed food and restaurant food.
How to Keep Sodium in Check
You can control how much sodium you get by simply reading labels. Look for ones that say no sodium or reduced sodium. Anything with more than 600 milligrams of it per 100 grams of serving size is considered high, while 300 milligrams or less is low. Keep in mind that sodium can also go by different names, like monosodium glutamate or disodium phosphate.
‘The Salty Six’
Be especially careful with these foods:
Pizza: One slice with lots of toppings can give you half your suggested daily amount of salt.
Bread and rolls: Even if there’s not a lot in one piece of bread or one roll, it can add up if you eat bread often.
Sandwiches: One fast-food sandwich or burger can give you your total daily amount of salt.
Cold cuts and cured meat: It takes about 6 thin slices to get half your recommended daily amount.
Canned soup: One cup can have half the salt you need for the day.
Burrito and taco fillings: These meats and cheeses can be loaded with salt.
What to Watch For: Sugars
Like salt, sugar is commonly added during processing. It’s used to make foods taste better or improve texture. It shows up in things you’d expect, like cereal and baked goods. But it can also be in things like pasta sauce. Almost 90% of added sugar in Americans’ diets comes from highly processed foods.
How to Keep Sugar in Check
As with salt, you can control how much sugar you get by reading labels. For a 2,000-calorie diet (a typical adult diet), you should aim for less than 50 grams of added sugar, or 200 calories, each day (less than 10% of total daily calories should come from added sugars). Check the ingredients, too. Certain ones should give you pause. These include corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, and turbinado sugar.
What to Watch For: Trans Fat
Found in processed foods like baked goods, salty snacks, and margarine, trans fat can affect your cholesterol and lead to inflammation that’s linked to heart disease, stroke, and other conditions. Recent government rulings have made trans fat increasingly difficult to find, but read labels: More than 5 grams per 100 grams of serving size is high. Also know that even if a product's label says it has 0 grams of trans fat, it can have up to 0.5 grams of it.
Cooking at Home
Preparing your own food lets you decide the ingredients and the amounts of them that go into it. If you don’t have the time -- or the skills -- for that, frozen meals aren’t necessarily as bad as they once were. While these are still processed, some food companies are using fewer unhealthy ingredients in them. It’s still important to read the labels, but they aren’t all bad for you.
Tips for Eating Out
While you don’t have as much control as you would at home, you can do some things to avoid ultra-processed food when you’re out. For example, you might ask your server which dishes are made at the restaurant and not brought in prepackaged. You could also request bottled dressings, sauces, or condiments on the side.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
Heather Mangieri, RDN, CSSD, Pittsburgh, PA.
Mayo Clinic: “Processed Foods: What You Should Know,” “Trans Fat Is Double Trouble For Your Heart Health.”
Eatright.org: “Processed Foods: What’s OK and What To Avoid.”
American Heart Association: “Can Processed Foods Be Part of a Healthy Diet,” “The Salty Six Infographic.”
Harvard School of Public Health: “The Nutrition Source: Processed Foods and Health,” “Types of Fat," "Artificial trans fats banned in U.S."