What Are Processed Foods?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 01, 2022
5 min read

Processed foods refer to any food that’s changed from its natural state. This can include food that was simply cut, washed, heated, pasteurized, canned, cooked, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed, or packaged. It also can include food that has added preservatives, nutrients, flavors, salts, sugars, or fats.

Usually, people think processed foods are “bad.” While there are a lot of processed options that are less nutritious, some processed foods are healthy.

The United Nations has a food grouping scale called the NOVA food classification. It puts food into four groups:

Group one: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. This group includes foods like fresh blueberries, roasted nuts, chopped vegetables, or other foods that have slight changes. These foods are prepared like this to make them easier to access.

This group might also include things that have been dried, frozen, refrigerated, filtered, fermented, or put in vacuum-sealed packages. This is meant to preserve the natural foods and allow you to safely eat them later.

Group two: Processed culinary ingredients. This group contains options like butter, oils, sugar, or salts. They’re ingredients that come from nature but are slightly changed. They may have been pressed, refined, milled, or dried. They’ve gone through this process to make it easier for you to use them in your kitchen. These options aren’t supposed to be eaten alone. They’re meant to be added to foods during meal preparation.

Group three: Processed foods. These include canned fish, fruits in syrup, bottled vegetables, cheese, fresh bread, or other options that were made with added salt, oil, sugar, or other things from groups one or two.

Most of these foods have two or three ingredients. They’re edible by themselves but can also be added to other dishes. The food in this group was processed to make it more stable or add to its qualities.

Group four: Ultra-processed food and drink products. This group contains foods that are typically the result of intensive manufacturing processes. They’re created from foods and additives and don’t relate much to group one foods. Like other options, these foods include sugars, oils, fats, and salt. But they also have ingredients taken from other foods, like casein, lactose, gluten, whey, hydrogenated oils, protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Ultra-processed options have a lot of preservatives, dyes, colors, added flavors, non-sugar sweeteners, or other ingredients that change the texture or appearance of the food.

These foods are meant for you to eat right away. They don’t usually require much preparation. This can include things like soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, or premade frozen meals.

The NOVA classification can help you understand the different types of food preparation and is used globally, but it is not recognized by the FDA or the USDA. It doesn’t include extensive lists of which foods belong in which category, so it may be confusing.

Some slightly processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet. But other, highly processed options can lead to health risks.

You might consume more than you’re aware of. Some processed foods contain a lot of salt, fat, and sugar. This can make the foods seem more appealing, taste better, or lengthen their shelf life. But you might not know just how much fat, salt, or sugar is in the foods you eat. This can cause you to eat more than you’d expect since it can be difficult to spot these additives.

Because of the high amount of ingredients, some of these foods also have a lot more calories than you’d think. For example, one small cookie might have 50 calories. This is about the same number of calories as an entire cup of green beans. You’ll tend to eat more calories with highly processed foods.

Highly processed food may put you at a higher cancer risk. One study found that your risk of cancer goes up with the amount of ultra-processed food you eat. Some experts wonder if this is because of all of the food additives that are in these options.

Some processed options don’t give your body what it needs. Foods that are highly processed are stripped of their basic nutrients. This is why many processed foods have added fiber, vitamins, and minerals. But once you take out the natural nutrients from a food, it’s difficult to add back all of its healthful value.

Heavily processed foods are quicker to digest. Processed foods are easier for your body to digest than foods in their natural state. This means your body burns fewer calories when you digest processed foods. Experts think you burn around half as many calories with processed options compared to natural foods. If you eat high-calorie processed foods that require less calories to digest, it may be harder to stay at a healthy weight.

To get the most out of your meals, you’ll want to stick to foods that aren’t changed as much from their natural state. Typically, the less processed it is, the better.

Some examples of processed foods that can add benefits to your meals include:

  • Whole-grain or whole wheat bread
  • Precut vegetables
  • Low-fat milk
  • Milks or juices with added vitamin D and calcium
  • Canned fruits stored in water or natural fruit juice
  • Breakfast cereals with added fiber

While it’s impossible to completely avoid unhealthy foods at times, it’s smart to stick to mainly minimally processed foods. There are a few ways to ensure you consume nutritional food options:

Read your labels. The fewer ingredients, the better. If you can’t pronounce most of the ingredients in a food, it’s most likely highly processed and probably not very good for you. Look for whole food options, like raw vegetables and fruit, or options with less ingredients.

Choose food from the fresh sections. One way to avoid processed foods is to look in the fresh section at the grocery store. You’ll find more wholesome choices here.

Look for less processed meats. Meats that are less processed, like seafood or chicken breasts, are better for you than processed meats. Avoid heavily processed options like sausage or bacon.

Cook more at home. When you go out to eat, it’s hard to tell what’s actually in your food. If you cook at home, you’re in control of the ingredients you put in your meals.