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Defining "Processed" Foods

posted Aug 21, 2010, 8:06 PM by Hildreth England   [ updated Apr 16, 2012, 4:46 PM ]

Photo by Scott Bauer/ARS

Photo by Scott Bauer/ARS

Photo WSU

Fish Processor
Photo by Hannes Grobe

Photo Alpha 2009

"Oh, um....I don't eat processed foods."


Basically every item of food that we put in our mouths go through some processing before we eat it.  It’s a product of our society’s industrial bent.  I’ve heard a lot of people claiming to avoid ’processed’ foods to improve their health.  Since there are so many definitions, I thought I’d add my own interpretation to the mix.  I agree that removing highly processed foods from your diet improves health and gets you closer to the source of your body’s fuel.  It improves your nutrition environment, and it will inevitably make you think more about what you eat. 

But there's some important benefits to be had from, say, Vitamin D and Calcium added to your milk.  Or adding some acetic acid (that's vinegar) to your grab-n-go chickpea salad from Wheatsville.  And that, folks, is definitely processing!

These definitions certainly aren’t fool proof, but they’ve served me well and I like to offer it as a guide to my clients. 

“Whole Foods” (not the store)

Unprocessed (whole) foods are items which look like they do in nature: oranges, apples, celery, eggs, fruits, meats (after removing skin/bones).  You can usually tell if it’s a whole food by asking the question: “is this man-made, or fresh from a tree, bush, picked from the ground, fished from the water, gathered from the animal without significant alteration?”   Sticking to whole foods in your diet reduces the intake of food science ‘gunk,’ and avoids eating what a lot of people -including me- call “pfoods.”


“Processed Foods”

Processed foods are foods that are not whole foods, and go through any kind of processing for convenience, shelf life, and/or taste or replication of a whole food (i.e. meat-free bacon).  Processed foods generally fall into these categories:

“Minimally Processed”

You can recognize these by a short, clear ingredients list. For example,  peanut butter made with JUST peanuts and salt. If a food can be recreated “from scratch” in the kitchen with supplies from a grocery store, I think it’s minimally processed. If you’ve got the time/energy and gumption to make these foods yourself - go nuts!  Otherwise, these are a fact of life, but better for you than ‘highly processed’ foods.  Some examples:

  • Juices, oils: if no salts or sugar added or reconstitution is done, minimally processed.
  • Dried fruits, nuts, and cured meats: if single ingredients with no preservatives (unrecognizable ingredients) added, minimally processed.
  • Flash-frozen seafood, fruits, and vegetables: minimally processed, next to fresh (and in some cases, actually healthier - i.e. peas).
  • Pasta & Grains: the grain often has its husks and bran removed, then it's bleached & milled, fortified, reconstituted, extruded, then dried (and packaged). It’s definitely processed, but look for 1-2 ingredients only (wheat, salt).
  • Cheese: If cheese has a very limited ingredient list (i.e. cheese: milk, rennet, salt, and a mold), it’s minimally processed.
  • Milk (animal): Ingredients  will simply be milk and water, and will be homogenized and pasteurized for safety and taste.  Often fortified with Calcium and Vitamin D.  As long as it is without antibiotics or growth hormone added, I consider it minimally processed.


“Highly Processed”

These are man-made foods with 2 or more ingredients that are not “from scratch” ingredients (like synthetic preservatives, sweeteners, bulking agents, food coloring) Some of those highly processed foods might surprise you, because they’re often touted as ‘healthy’ alternatives.  Some examples:

  • Most “Low-fat”, “low-sugar” foods with added HFCS, thickeners, oils
  • Canned ‘meals’, canned meats
  • Most crackers, cereals, chips, baked goods that include lots of fillers
  • Meat or fish imitation or substitutes (including soy products)
  • Nut or soy milks
  • Boxed, pre-prepared, freeze-dried or frozen ‘meals’ (tuna helper, rice mixes, macaroni and cheese, frozen dinners)
  • The Obvious Un-recognizables: chicken nuggets, Velveeta, Soda and energy drinks, Twinkies, etc.

The most important skill to have when making food choices is to learn how to read the ingredients and nutrition facts label on your foods - if you can’t pronounce an ingredient or don’t recognize it, it’s probably just not necessary (or all that good) for your body.

In summary - the more whole foods you’re able to add to your diet (preferably sourced from local farmers, by sustainable means), the more good you’ll do for everyone involved in your nutrition environment - most importantly, YOU!