When it comes to buzzwords in the food world (the ones that really get people talking: organic, vegan, carbs, fat, gluten), there's often more to the story than "this is the healthiest food ever" and "this is evil; never eat it!" There's almost always a gray area that blurs the line between healthy and not. Perhaps no line is blurrier and no area is grayer than when it comes to processed foods. There's no shortage of stories chastising processed food for its unnatural ways, but what does it mean to process a food, exactly? And how bad is it, really? We investigate.
What Are Processed Foods?
What do cheese puffs and frozen blueberries have in common? You might say "absolutely nothing, you fool!" or think this is some sort of riddle. Truth is, the greasy, neon-orange snack and the perfect-for-a-smoothie frozen berries are both processed foods. Yep, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines processed foods as anything that is not a "raw food commodity" a.k.a. any fruit, veggies, grain or meat that's been altered in ANY way—that includes flash-freezing blueberries, cutting, chopping, and plain and simple cooking. Of course, that includes those cheese puffs and ice cream (duh), but olive oil, eggs, canned beans, cereal, flour, and even bagged spinach also fall under the highly criticized umbrella.
So while both potato chips and pre-cut veggies are technically considered processed foods, their nutritional components are obviously widely different. To make things a little clearer for the consumer (and ultimately to find out where most of our grocery shopping bucks go), Jennifer Poti, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill classified processed foods into several categories with varying degrees of processing. Results, which were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that when comparing nutritional content, "highly processed foods were higher in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium." Defining a processed food and its nutritional quality shouldn't end there. "Processed food is a very broad term that is used to refer to things like chips and soda, but processed food is a lot more than just chips and soda," says Poti.
Predictably, the study placed that kind of chemically altered junk food, as well as foods like white bread and candy, under the category of highly processed foods. These are the bad guys—ultra-processed foods that offer little to no real nutritional value, and a slew of negative consequences. They're often high in calories, sugar, and/or sodium. (Processed food can put you in a bad mood too.)
What about all the food that falls somewhere between bagged kale (minimally processed) and Twinkies (highly processed)? For the study's purposes Poti defined single-ingredient foods that were altered, such as flour, as basic processed, and single-ingredient foods with additives, such as canned fruit, as moderately processed.
The Pros and Cons of Processing
If it didn't shock you that your favorite yogurt or frozen veggies were considered processed, then what about if we told you that sometimes processing is the smart, safe, and even healthier option? Say what?!
"Food processing is important to ensure we have a safe food supply, persevering it so we can make it available year round regardless of the season," says Poti.
Fruit cups, for example, are packaged with liquid to preserve their freshness—you can't exactly grab fresh peaches, let alone Mandarin oranges, in the produce section during winter. This liquid could be simply water and natural sweetener, or it could contain high fructose corn syrup—different in nutritional value, of course, but both serving a safety purpose.
And it's the process of canning, sometimes with salt as a preservative that allows canned green beans (or corn, pinto beans, peas, carrots, you name it) to remain shelf-stable and safe to consume. Yes, this process means canned food can be higher in sodium (a big culprit for the processed food backlash), but it's a necessary evil to provide consumers the convenience and affordability of vegetables that might not otherwise be available.
Just because processed foods make life more convenient doesn't necessarily make them unhealthy choices, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It, and creator of betterthandieting.com. "There are some processed foods that we wouldn't eat any other way," she says. "You wouldn't pick a stalk of wheat and eat it. If you want bread, you need to process it." There's no such thing as farm-to-table bread, so more about choosing the right kind of bread (more whole grains and less bleached, enriched flour) than it is about avoiding bread entirely. (In fact, here are ten reasons you shouldn't feel guilty about eating bread.)
Some processed food, like tomatoes, for example, is even better for you after it's been altered. Canned, peeled tomatoes or tomato paste, for example, contain greater amounts of lycopene than their fresh counterparts as the cooking process increases the level this cancer-fighting antioxidant. Plus the oil found in these products actually enhances the body's absorption of the carotenoid, adds Taub-Dix. Another food made better from processing? Yogurt. "There are cultures added to yogurt to help retain its calcium and protein, and boost your immune system and bone health," she says.
The downsides of processed foods make a much bigger splash, as in the case of things like frozen dinners and granola bars. Frozen meals and granola bars often tout themselves as healthy choices for their portion control or calorie counts, but when you pile on sauce overloaded with salt or throw in as much sugar as possible, that's another story. "Some granola bars are high in protein, but others are basically candy bars," says Taub-Dix. In that case, the problem isn't the processing part; it's the adding a thousand pounds of sugar part.
Can We Make Processed Food Better?
Despite the bad reputation, demand for these ready-to-eat convenience foods does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Poti's research shows that from 2000-2012 Americans' shopping habits for highly processed foods and beverages never dipped lower than 44 percent of the total grocery store purchases. Conversely, unprocessed and minimally processed foods didn't peak above 14 percent for that same time period. It's fair to say that cleaning up the American diet is going to take some time, so is there anything that can be done to make processed foods better in the meantime?
"Overall when we compared nutritional content, highly processed foods were higher in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, but that doesn't need to be the case," says Poti. "It's not that highly processed foods need to be unhealthy, it's just that the ones being purchased aren't high in nutritional quality."
Reducing sodium seems like a smart place to start, with the CDC recently reporting that among some roughly 15,000 participants studied, 89 percent of adults (90 percent of children) exceeded the recommended sodium intake—less than 2,300 mg a day. Unsurprisingly, the 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans also reported that "most sodium consumed in the United States comes from salts added during commercial food processing and preparation."
Despite warnings that sodium increases blood pressure and, therefore, the risk for hypertension and other heart-related conditions, Americans' overall consumption and the concentration of sodium has not changed much over the last decade, according to the CDC. Top culprits include bread, deli meats, pizza, poultry, soups, cheese, pasta dishes, and savory snacks. (But watch out for these foods as sodium-packed as soy sauce too.)
Helpful (Healthful) Hints to Keep In Mind
With all the varying degrees of processing, all the labels that shout "GMO-free" or "no preservatives added," making the right decision among infinite options (have you seen the yogurt section lately?) can be tricky to say the least. "It's about choosing the right processed foods, not being afraid of them," says Taub-Dix.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Read the label
"You don't need to treat the store as a library," says Taub-Dix. "But take the time to make a list of safe foods—healthy ones that your family enjoys and work for your lifestyle." One thing to note though: Ingredient lists can be deceiving. A long list doesn't necessarily mean a food is unhealthy (i.e. multi-grain bread filled with things like flax seeds, oats, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds). While a short list doesn't automatically indicate a better pick (i.e. sugary organic fruit juice). Don't forget to watch out for these other nutrition label tricks to avoid.
Think inside the box
It's commonly believed that shopping the perimeter of the grocery store will lead to healthier food in your cart when you reach the checkout. And while nearly all of the major food groups that form the foundation of a healthy, balanced diet (vegetables, fruits, dairy, meat, and fish) are shelved around the edge of most markets, there are nutritionally valuable foods in the middle of the store that you could be missing. Bypass the ice cream in the frozen section, and pick up a bag of green peas, and skip the chip aisle altogether (why do chips take up an entire aisle, btw?!) in search of steel cut oats instead.
Pay attention to sugar
"Sugar is a master of disguise," says Taub-Dix. "It's hidden in food under different names—cane juice, dextrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, agave." Just looking at the total grams of sugar won't do the trick either, as many dairy products contain natural sugars due to the lactose. Although often fortified with essential vitamins, cereal can also be along the stealthy sugar offenders. (P.S. Does sugar really cause cancer?)
Portion size is still important
So you found a bag of baked chips that's got nothing more than thinly sliced potatoes and a light dusting of sea salt. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that doesn't mean you can devour an entire bag. "Don't assume just because it's not highly processed, that it doesn't have as many calories," says Taub-Dix. Calories are calories no matter how processed (or not).
Make small changes at home
Canned beans are high in fiber, low in cholesterol, easy to store, and have a long shelf life. Processing shouldn't keep you away from these kinds of convenience items (oh hai, super-quick weeknight vegetarian chili), but there's a simple step that you may be forgetting that makes beans and other canned food instantly healthier. Rinse before you eat. According to Taub-Dix, just by rinsing canned food twice (you're getting rid of that sticky canning liquid), you can reduce the sodium content by about 40 percent.