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What Is "Processed Food" Exactly?

By David Grotto, RDN, LDN

guy shopping

It’s National Nutrition month,  a perfect time to think and act on healthier eating habits. When you’re shopping for food, you may think that words such as “fresh”, “local” and “organic” and never “processed” mean healthier choices, right? Not so fast.

When you hear the word “processed” in the context of food, what comes to mind? I took the liberty of asking 5,000 Facebook friends. Let me share some of their responses:

  • Never watered
  • American cheese
  • In a can or box
  • Anything in a snack food aisle
  • “When ingredients are used that I don’t have at home”
  • Commercially prepared
  • “Anything other than whole foods”
  • Simulated or ‘fake’

The list goes on and on. And in fact, in the context of food, the word “processed” is not legally defined … yet. The International Food Information Council Foundation defines processed foods as “Any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.” So, chopping up some vegetables, making a smoothie and cooking your food can all fit this “processed” definition as well as the vast majority of foods found in the grocery store. Are these foods less healthy?

Many people assume that “processed,” regardless of the definition, means inferior or not nutritious. It could mean that the pre-packaged lettuce bag that you purchased for dinner or the canned pumpkin puree you bought back at Thanksgiving or even the lean chicken breast from the meat department, would all be fair game for less worthy status. That’s a bunch of hogwash!

Take the example of triple washed organic mixed greens. It does come in a container and a plastic one at that. But I think most would argue that merely because it is sorted, washed and packed in a plastic container doesn’t mean it’s not good for you. In fact, I would argue that washed lettuce has single handedly removed a barrier to eating it.

Now let’s go for a harder example: American cheese. You may have heard that Kraft singles have had a bit of a makeover. Kraft removed any artificial preservatives and flavors and replaced them with natural ones. The rest of the ingredients include various dairy products such as whey and real cheese, salts, enzymes and vitamin D. Even with these improvements, Kraft technically still has to call it “processed cheese” because of the way the product is made. Still, the singles are comparable to other “natural” cheeses – no more or no less healthy.

More examples? Here are some healthy exceptions to the remaining definitions of “processed:”

  • In a can or box. Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables (low-sodium canned vegetables and fruits that are packed in water or its own juices) can be just as nutritious.
  • Anything in a snack food aisle. The snack food aisle has plenty of bars that contain whole grains, nuts and seeds and other healthy ingredients.
  • When ingredients are used that I don’t have at home. Unless you have the ultimate pantry, you are likely to be missing an ingredient or two that you might find in a “processed” food. Just because you can’t pronounce it or know what it is does not mean that it isn’t safe or nutritious.
  • Commercially prepared. I would not expect to see a bunch of grandmas in the basement of a house making my jarred sauerkraut!
  • Simulated or ‘fake’. Vegan cheese, soy, rice or almond milk, and veggie lunch meat would all be considered “fake” or “simulated” but many might perceive (especially vegetarians) these examples as “better for you” options.
  • Anything other than whole foods. Are romaine hearts, hearts of palm, canned pumpkin puree or oat bran cereal unhealthy food choices? Technically, none of these examples would be considered “whole foods” in its strictest form.
  • Never watered. All food, regardless of final form, was once watered (plant or animal)

Maybe we need to stop using this word or at least all agree on a standardized definition. Even foods that we probably agree would fall under the definition of “processed,” such as 100% refined flour white bread, candy and chocolate chip cookies can still be included occasionally in an overall healthy diet.

What do you think would be a better word than processed?  Do you have other food examples that are processed that might be good for you? Comment below!

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