< Return to Previous Page

Avoiding Processed Food—What Does that Mean?

By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition Services and Senior Centers

You may have heard that it is important to avoid processed foods, but are they all bad? Today, processed foods are blamed for many issues like obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more. But when you think about it, any time you prepare a dish, you now have a processed food. “Processed food” means more than canned soup, boxed mixes, snack crackers and fast food. While some should be consumed with caution, many have a place in a balanced diet.

What is processed food? “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.”

You can process food and still have a nutritious product. Of course, it matters what the food item is and how it has been processed. A good example of this is freezing food. By freezing vegetables and fruits we preserve them while still maintaining equal nutritional composition to their fresh state. Whether you process your own food items or purchase them from the store, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Limit the Sodium! Our bodies require only a small amount of sodium each day to function normally. Eating too much sodium can lead to increased blood pressure, which can raise the risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.

The best way to watch for too much added sodium is to read “Nutrition Facts” on the label. USDA nutrition guidelines recommend that you limit sodium to less than 2500mg per day and even lower for older adults. Reading labels is the best way to determine if a processed food has too much sodium.

Canned foods are among one of the biggest culprits behind increased sodium in our diets. Look for canned foods with “reduced sodium” or “no salt added.” If you are processing your food at home, you can decrease the amount of sodium added in recipes and choose herbs and spices that do not have added salt.

Limit or Avoid Items with Added Sugar
Added sugars are sweeteners added to foods that are not naturally occurring. Sugars are not only found in candy and desserts. Sugar is also added to food to give it a good appearance, to help dough rise, to reduce acidity or bitterness and as a preservative. Read labels for the percent of added sugar that will soon be on food labels

When processing food at home, you can usually decrease the amount of table sugar or sweeteners in recipes by 24-30% and still get an excellent finished product.

Trans Fats
Added fats can help make food shelf-stable and give it body. Trans-fats raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good cholesterol. Fortunately, these are on the decline in processed foods, but still read the “Nutrition Facts” label. The Food and Drug Administration has banned artificial trans-fats from food supplies but companies have until 2018 to comply.

Make sure hydrogenated oils are not on the label. These oils contain trans-fat but do not have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label if the amount is less than .5 grams per serving.

Enriching Food by Adding Vitamins, Minerals or Fiber
Some processed foods can be beneficial to your diet. Examples of this include added calcium and vitamin D in milk and juice. Sometimes foods are fortified to add back some of the nutrients lost when processed. Be careful with items that claim to be better because of adding vitamins or minerals though. Sometimes it is just to sell their product.

Everyday Food Preparation
There are ways to take a processed item and make it into a healthier dish. For example, for spaghetti sauce, combine processed sauce with no added salt and tomato paste or tomatoes to help decrease the sodium and sugar. Look for spices and seasonings that are also processed without added salt.

Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we are processing it. It is best to process as many foods as possible from a fresh state in your home, but if you are using canned, boxed, bagged or other processed food from the store, familiarize yourself with the “Nutrition Facts” label and ingredient list. Remember there are some good options for pre-packaged, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that can make healthy eating more convenient for busy people. Look for vegetables and fruits at the store that have no added salt and no added sugars. Avoid or limit heavily processed foods like pre-made meals and microwaveable dinners. When you can, get back to the basics and enjoy the art of cooking from fresh ingredients.

Another option is to lunch. We make many items from scratch and choose processed foods that are lower in sodium and fat.