"The term processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption," says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways." For example, Armul considers white bread refined since most of the healthy fiber has been removed during the processing. "Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we're processing food. It's also the origin of the term 'food processor,' which can be a helpful and convenient tool for preparing healthy meals."
Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:
Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
The Positives of Processed
Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.
"The trick is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed," says Armul. "Lightly processed foods include pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna and frozen vegetables. These are nutritious choices and can make healthy eating more convenient for busy people. Heavily processed foods can be recognized as food not in its original form, like potato chips and crackers, or food that is not naturally occurring, such as sodas, donuts, cookies and candy."
"Ultimately, you have to familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list," she says. "Do more cooking and food prep at home to maximize control over the food processing."