Many experts in the wellness world (including doctors, dietitians, and healthy food bloggers) advise cutting out processed foods completely, deeming them all as unhealthy. Whole foods are best is the message preached on blogs, on Instagram, and in the comments on Facebook.
But here’s the reality: eating all whole foods all the time is definitely not practical. Who wants to subsist off of just fruits and vegetables and plain rice all the time? Meanwhile, packaged, processed foods certainly have convenience and ease on their side. Plus, there are definitely lots of packaged options that are at least seemingly healthy: they are high in protein and fiber, have minimal ingredients lists, rich in vitamins and minerals…they can’t all be bad, right?
Basically, the debate around processed food is confusing. So we asked food scientists and nutrition experts to clear a few things up for us about the most demonized, feared food category there is. Buckle up, because your mind is about to be blown.
What is processed food?
One of the main reasons processed foods are so misunderstood is that not everyone knows exactly what they are. Food science and nutrition expert Taylor Wallace, PhD, defines it by saying, “Processed food is something that has changed from [its] original state.” This change can happen from a variety of processes, per the Institute of Food Technologists, including “washing, grinding, mixing, cooling, storing, heating, freezing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, frying, drying, concentrating, pressurizing, irradiating, microwaving, and packaging.” (Whew!) This is quite a broad definition, Wallace says. Butter, bread, wine, beer, and even pre-cut baby carrots are all technically processed foods.
Processing happens for a variety of reasons, many of which are crucial for health and safety. For example, we pasteurize milk and other foods to kill harmful bacteria—which is a form of processing. Similarly, canning or freezing fruits and vegetables at peak ripeness (processing!) helps certain foods last longer without going bad. However, in the pursuit of preservation and flavor, sometimes “questionable” ingredients are added to foods that make them potentially less healthy, Beckerman said.
Here’s how to better navigate the processed foods and snacks, according to Beckerman:
But all processed food is bad for you, right?
Not necessarily—tons of objectively healthy foods like frozen fruit and canned beans are processed. Since processed food is such a broad category, registered dietitian Rachel Swanson, RD, views the category as more of a spectrum than as a uniform monolith.
“I think of ‘minimally processed’ foods as things like bagged spinach, spiralized zucchini noodles, and frozen produce; things that are pre-prepped for convenience or have basic preservation techniques used,” Swanson says. “I also include something like packaged tofu on this end of the spectrum because it is altered from [soy’s] original form, but not in a way that is detrimental to health.” On the other end of the spectrum are what Swanson calls “ultra-processed foods,” which include ingredients that alter the flavor, as well as contain sugar, salt, and other preservatives. Many of these ultra-processed foods have been associated in study after study with poor health outcomes.
Her thinking mimics the direction of some food advocates. The International Food Information Council Foundation proposes grouping processed foods into five categories:
- Minimally processed, which describes foods that require some small amount of processing (like pre-cut and washed fruit and vegetables)
- Foods processed “to help preserve and enhance nutrients and freshness” (like canned tuna and beans, frozen fruit, and baby food)
- Foods that “combine ingredients such as sweeteners, spices, oils, flavors, colors, and preservatives to improve safety and taste and/or add visual appeal” (such as spice mixes, jarred tomato sauce, cake mix, and salad dressings)
- “Ready-to-eat” foods that require little prep (like cereal, granola bars, nut butters, yogurt, lunch meat, and rotisserie chicken)
- Foods packaged to “stay fresh and save time” (like frozen meat, entrées, etc)
Whichever end of the spectrum something may fall, The Angry Chef’s Guide to Spotting Bullsh*t in the World of Food author Anthony Warner says processed food doesn’t deserve its demonized reputation. “There’s a common belief that things were better in the past, but the truth is, our food system is safer than ever before,” Warner says. “People are living longer now than our grandparents did and a lot of that has to do with regulations around food.”
Warner even believes that processed foods are feminist as they free women (and men) up from making everything from scratch in the kitchen. “The idea of wanting to get women back in the kitchen and demonizing processed and convenience foods is really quite retrograde,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to cook and eat healthy, but I find the idea of making people feel guilty if they don’t make everything from scratch as problematic because it’s just not very realistic, especially for those who are working more than one job to provide for their families.”
What about the chemicals in processed foods?
A casual stroll around the grocery store looks vastly different today than it did a decade ago, and many foods in the aisles (especially the frozen section) are both processed and nutrient-rich. But it’s true that many are still full of preservatives and other chemicals with a bad health rep. Surely anything with additives would fall on the “ultra” end of Swanson’s processed food scale, right? Not exactly.
As food science experts, both Warner and Dr. Wallace say it’s another, related, misconception many healthy eaters have that chemicals in food are “bad.” “All foods and drinks have chemicals,” Dr. Wallace says. “It’s a scary term to some people, but water, your body, and the earth are all made up of chemicals.” He says that anything being added to foods and drinks must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, who have strict guidelines to ensure its safety.
Still, some of these approved ingredients can be problematic, Beckerman said. For example, nitrates (which are used to cure deli meats so they last longer) have been linked to an increased risk of thyroid issues and are potentially carcinogenic—although there is a lot of mixed research on this subject.
In general though, being scared of a chemical just by virtue of it being a chemical is an oversimplification. “There are good reasons why food companies may add something to the food, such as a mold inhibiter that prevents bacterial growth,” Dr. Wallace says, citing one example of when a food additive can be a positive.
Okay, so how do I know what processed foods are definitely healthy?
When it comes to healthy food shopping, Swanson offers up this advice: Choose foods on the “minimally processed” end of the spectrum and eye the nutritional panel. Common sense still applies: You know that nutrients like protein and fiber are important and sugar and sodium need to be kept in check. And if you are concerned with something on the ingredients list you don’t recognize, Dr. Wallace and Warner both encourage shoppers to do a little research to learn more about what exactly it is—not just assuming it’s unhealthy because it’s foreign. Does playing detective take more work than a quick judgement call? Totally. But the more you know, the better you can make food shopping choices that you feel good about.
If this new way of thinking about processed foods is throwing you for a loop, hopefully it’s mind-blowing in a good way. After all, there’s no denying that there are more nutrient-rich foods in grocery stores than ever before and they’re packaged in a way that makes eating healthy more convenient. Making your own bread from scratch and straining your own nut milk can be rewarding, but aren’t you glad you don’t have to do it?
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