If you were asked to name a processed food, chances are that the first thing you would come up with would be something like soda pop, potato chips, or microwave dinners. However, while all those examples certainly qualify as processed foods, they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, believe it or not, most of the foods that we eat today are processed. If this surprises you, read on to get answers to four important questions about processed food.
1. What is the definition of “processed food”?
The definition of “processed food” is very simple: according to most sources (including the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report), processed food is defined as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity.” In other words, it’s any food that has been deliberately changed in some way before it’s made available for consumption. These changes could be as simple as washing or chopping, or as complex as the preparation of ready-to-eat foods from their essential ingredients. Some sources make a further distinction between processed and minimally processed food. The latter is usually defined as processed food “that retains most of its inherent physical, chemical, sensory, and nutritional properties.”
2. Why is food processed?
Humans have been processing food for millions of years, ever since our early ancestors discovered fire and learned how to cook with it. From there, food processing evolved to include fermenting, drying, and preserving foods with salt, and all of these developments led to the many modern food processing methods we use today, which include canning, freezing, and adding both natural and artificial ingredients to food products.
While the ways in which food can be processed may seem nearly endless, all food processing methods share the same basic goals: to make food safe for consumption; to help food stay fresh longer; to increase the length of time that food can be stored; and to enhance food’s flavor, appearance, and nutritional properties.
Processing also allows us to obtain many different types of products and ingredients from a single food. For example, while corn can simply be picked and eaten off the cob, it can also be processed and turned into canned or frozen corn kernels, dried popcorn kernels or popcorn snacks, corn flour for use in tortilla chips, corn starch for use in cooking and baking, and corn syrup.
3. What are some examples of processed foods?
To get a better understanding of the wide range of processed foods that most of us consume on a regular basis, it can be helpful to think of processed foods on a continuum, from minimally to heavily processed.
Minimally processed foods—As the name implies, these foods have undergone very little processing: usually only washing, chopping, or minimal cooking to provide consumers with greater convenience. Examples of minimally processed foods include washed and packaged salad greens, peeled and sliced fruits, and roasted nuts.
Foods processed at peak freshness—Many foods are processed while they are at their peak of ripeness or freshness in order to preserve their flavor and nutritional qualities. These foods include frozen fruits and vegetables, canned vegetables and beans, and canned fish.
Foods with added ingredients—Foods in this category have been combined with a variety of ingredients (such as spices, sweeteners, oils, flavors, colors, and preservatives) to improve the taste, texture, and visual appeal. Examples include jarred pasta sauce, bottled salad dressing, and cake mix.
Ready-to-eat foods—These foods have undergone more substantial processing, and require minimal or no preparation. Snack foods like potato chips, crackers, and granola bars fall into this category, as do foods such as deli meat, some dairy products, and carbonated beverages.
Heavily processed foods—This category includes foods that have been heavily processed in order to stay fresh and help consumers to save time. Premade meals such as frozen pizza or microwaveable dinners are common examples of heavily processed foods.
4. Are processed foods unhealthy?
As we can see from the wide range of processed foods described above, it’s impossible to broadly categorize all processed foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Depending on the type of food and degree of processing, processed foods can vary widely in terms of their nutritional value. While it’s certainly true that some processed foods like candy, soda, or fried foods may be high in calories, but offer little else in the way of nutrients, other foods can actually become more nutritious as a result of processing. For example, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that have been picked and preserved at their peak of freshness typically retain more vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients than fresh produce that sits around at the grocery store for days or even weeks after it’s been harvested. Likewise, some foods like bread and breakfast cereals have been fortified with additional nutrients during the processing stage. For consumers, learning how to read and navigate nutritional labels can help them to steer clear of processed foods that are less healthy: key things to watch out for (and avoid) include high levels of sodium, sugar, and trans fats.