Avoiding processed foods is one of the most common suggestions for someone trying to make healthier eating choices. Focusing on fresh, whole ingredients is great…but also pretty much impossible by today’s standards.
We aren’t just talking about busy schedules causing us to rely on ready-made meals and frozen dinners. Almost all of the food we buy at the grocery store and even at farmer’s markets has been processed. Knowing how to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy processed food is what makes all the difference.
Are some processed foods healthy?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food is anything that’s been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, fortified, preserved, or prepped. That includes things we don’t usually consider as “processed,” like bags of leafy greens and pre-cut fruit and veggies. Of course, these are minimally processed and undeniably healthy options.
Even slightly more processed foods, like canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, are still considered healthy. In fact, these are typically prepared at their peak freshness, which is retained by the act of being processed. Certain pasta sauces, salad dressings, and baking mixes can also find themselves under the healthy umbrella despite having ingredients added for flavor, texture, and shelf-life. The same goes for some cooking oils, breads, pastas, and dairy products.
The important thing to keep an eye on is whether these items have had tons of sugar or sodium added in. For example, canned fruit in water or its own juices is perfectly fine — but extra sweeteners like concentrated juice or corn syrup cross them over into the less healthy category. It’s also a good idea to look for low-sodium or no salt added options when picking canned veggies, soups, and sauces.
What are bad processed foods?
As you can probably guess, ultra-processed foods are what experts consider to be unhealthy. Frozen pizza, microwave dinners, deli meat, chips, candy, soda, and basically all of the fun junk food we already know we shouldn’t eat as much. They can still be enjoyed in moderation — but all of the delicious flavor that makes them so tempting is most often due to higher levels of sugar and sodium that will wreak havoc on our health if we go overboard.
Researchers who recently observed more than 100,000 participants over a five year span found that having just 10 percent of their meals consist of ultra-processed foods greatly increased their risk of cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure and strokes. These results are especially troubling considering they also claim ultra-processed food currently makes up about 25 to 60 percent of the average daily diets across the globe.
Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition observed higher levels of ultra-processed food consumption lead to more rapidly aging cells. This is all on top of the fact that highly processed food is well known for causing weight gain, too.
Bottom line: Although most food is processed in some way or another, we should try to balance our shopping carts with more minimally or slightly processed items and avoid ultra-processed foods as much as we can.