How to choose processed foods to fit within a healthy eating planLast updated: Oct 01, 2017
We hear health messages every day to choose foods that are less processed, but what does this mean?
According to Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed foods include any food that has been purposefully changed in some way prior to eating.1 Food manufacturers define food processing as any process that turns fresh foods into food products, such as canned tomato sauce, packaged cookies, or a frozen lunch or dinner meal.2
Food processing is a health concern because highly processed foods contribute almost 60% of calories, 90% of added sugars, and 75% of the sodium in our food choices.2,3 Extra calories, added sugars and higher levels of sodium in foods increase risk for several chronic conditions.4 According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, obesity increases the risk of developing a wide range of health problems, including:
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure
- heart disease and strokes
- certain types of cancer
- sleep apnea
- fatty liver disease
- kidney disease
- pregnancy problems, such as high blood sugar during pregnancy, high blood pressure, and increased risk for cesarean delivery (C-section)5
Added sugars increase risk of overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease4 which led the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time to encourage limiting added sugars.6 Consuming too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which increases risk of heart disease and stroke.3
Three main types of food processing
There are three main types of food processing: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary and food industry ingredients, and ultra-processed food products.
Unprocessed foods include fresh fruit such as apples, pears, plums, and melon; and fresh vegetables such as onions, zucchini, peppers and tomatoes. Minimal processing is used to preserve foods to make them more available to consumers across the country and includes drying, freezing, pasteurization, vacuum and gas packing, and simple wrapping. Fresh meat and poultry, milk, grains (such as rice, pasta, quinoa, and oats), legumes, nuts, and some types of fruit and vegetables (such as bags of lettuce or spinach or packaged berries) are routinely minimally processed.7
Processed culinary and food industry ingredients include substances that are extracted and purified from other foods through the use of enzymes, milling and refining that radically change the nature of the original food. Examples of processed ingredients used in home cooking are flours, sugar, oils, and butter and margarine. Many processed ingredients are used by the food industry, such as high fructose corn syrup, flavorings and colorings, and milk and soy proteins.7
Ultraprocessed foods are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat with little or no preparation. Salting, frying, curing, smoking, pickling, and canning are processes used for these foods. Frequently preservatives and synthetic vitamins and minerals are added during processing. These foods are processed to create durable, convenient, attractive foods that have a long shelf life, can be transported over long distances, and appeal to our taste for sweet, salty, high fat foods.7
The positives and negatives about processed foods
There are several positives about processed foods:
- increased convenience using washed and cleaned bagged salad greens and cut-up fresh fruit
- added vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D added to milk, calcium added to some fruit juices, and folate added to cereals and breads
- increased portability and availability of foods year-round, such as canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, frozen fish fillets, and canned tuna and salmon
The negatives about processed foods include:
- added salt may affect blood pressure
- added sugar can impact weight and health
- hydrogenated fats and trans fatty acids increase risk of cardiovascular disease
- higher amounts of calories impact body weight
- essential nutrients, such as fiber and vitamins, may be removed during processing
It’s unrealistic to never eat processed foods. Use these 5 steps to a commonsense approach to include fewer processed foods in an overall healthy eating plan:
- Whenever possible use unprocessed and minimally processed foods as your primary food choices. For example, enjoy breakfast with whole grain toast, natural peanut butter, and fresh fruit instead of toaster pastries.
- Read the list of ingredients on all foods that are packaged, frozen, boxed or canned. The ingredients are listed in descending order, with the ingredient present in the largest amount by weight listed first. Look for ingredients that you recognize as foods, such as oats, whole grain wheat, apples, or almonds. Avoid foods that contain ingredients that sound more like chemicals than foods, such as soy lecithin, hydrolyzed soy corn protein, or hydrogenated vegetable oil.
- Choose frozen vegetables and fruit without any ingredients except the vegetable or fruit, and canned fruit canned in its own juice or water to avoid added sugar and sodium.
- Cook from scratch instead of using convenience foods that are more processed. For example, make your own rice pilaf using brown rice with onion, garlic, and raisins instead of a boxed or frozen rice mix. Use a crockpot to prepare meals in advance and package the leftovers yourself instead of using frozen meals.
- Replace packaged snack foods like chips, cookies and candy with fresh fruit, cut-up raw vegetables, and popcorn you pop yourself.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid. http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/avoiding-processed-foods published 11-7-16; accessed 9-15-17
- American Heart Association. Can Processed Foods be Part of a Healthy Diet? https://healthyforgood.heart.org/eat-smart/articles/can-processed-foods-be-part-of-a-healthy-diet last updated 4-20-17; accessed 9-15-17
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. Get the Facts: Sodium’s Role in Processed Food. https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_role_processed.pdf publication date 4-2016; accessed 9-21-17.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Know Your Limit for Added Sugars. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/know-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html last updated 9-27-16; accessed 9-17-17
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Health Risks of Being Overweight. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/health-risks-overweight accessed 9-20-17
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Chapter 2: Shifts Needed to Align with Healthy Eating Patterns. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-2/about/ accessed 9-20-17
- Monteiro, Carlos Augusto, Levy, Renata Bertazzi, Claro, Rafael Moreira, Castro, Inês Rugani Ribeiro de, & Cannon, Geoffrey. (2010). A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 26(11), 2039-2049. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0102-311X2010001100005