A common thread among the bounty of diet options out there is to greatly limit, or completely banish, processed foods—a food category many deem as a big no-no when it comes to healthy eating. These foods get blamed for everything from high cholesterol and blood pressure to increased rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
While research confirms some of these claims (for some of these foods), our understanding of processed foods is too simplistic and not all processed items should be demonized. “Processed foods, like all foods, have their place in healthful and well-rounded eating patterns,” says sports dietitian and former pro cyclist Kristen Arnold, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D. While some forms of processed foods are certainly best eaten in small amounts, Arnold stresses that others are perfectly acceptable to eat more liberally.
The truth is, we’re all probably consuming more “processed” products than we even realize. Consider your morning coffee, sandwich bread, or a scoop of postrun protein powder—all processed items but not necessarily foods we’d think to avoid.
The key is learning how to tell the difference between types of processed foods and understanding why you shouldn’t feel remorseful about dropping a few into your shopping cart.
What makes a food processed or ultra-processed?
When most people think of processed foods, they envision packaged foods or fast food items filled with highly refined carbs, fats, salt, sugar, and artificially produced ingredients. But it’s important to know that not all processed foods are created equally. Because virtually all foods sold in the supermarket can be classified as “processed” to some degree, it’s helpful to differentiate between the various degrees of food processing.
“Technically speaking, processing can be defined as any time you alter a food from its original state (out of the ground or off an animal),” Arnold tells Bicyling. That means the food has been changed from its natural state using one or more of these processing methods: washing, freezing, chopping, milling, heating, pasteurizing, dehydrating, fermenting, or packaging. In other words, almost anything that isn’t eaten raw is processed to some degree. “Cutting up a banana and blending it in a smoothie is considered processing,” notes Arnold.
Adding preservatives and fortification with vitamins and minerals are also forms of processing. Processing by certain methods like pasteurization, cooking, and drying can inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria that can play foul with your stomach and health—certainly something you want to happen to your food.
So while processed food does include frozen TV dinners, a bag of barbecue chips, and a drive-through cheeseburger, it also includes the frozen berries you blend into your postrun smoothies, the canned peas you stir into a soup, the pasteurized milk you float your cereal in and the canned tuna you stuff into your lunch sandwich. Yet most of us feel pretty good about including them regularly as part of an overall healthy diet.
There is a caveat, though: “While processed foods are generally made from whole food, ultra-processed foods are made from substances extracted from foods, such as hydrogenated fats and added sugars,” Arnold says. She explains that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) undergo multiple processing steps and are combined with any number of substances including hydrogenated fats, salt, sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, and emulsifiers to alter taste, texture, and shelf life. This is often the reason why they taste so good and why we keep coming back for more, with a tendency to overeat them.
In essence, UPFs are often broken down from the original state and rebuilt as something different. (What’s more, all that extra processing gives them a higher carbon impact on the environment.)
Notable examples of these ultra-processed foods include cookies, chips, pastries, deli meats, bacon, boxed breakfast cereals, frozen dinners, crackers, energy bars, ice cream, candy, and most fried fast food. Most of these items contain an unevenly high ratio of calories to nutrients.
Where it can get a bit tricky is that some foods may fall into more than one processing category. Plain yogurt is minimally processed, but yogurt with fruit and added sweeteners could be ultra-processed depending on how much sweetener and other additives get incorporated into the mix. Crackers can go from processed to ultra-processed when whole grains are replaced with refined grains and flavorings. A bottled vinaigrette containing little more than olive oil, vinegar, and herbs can morph into extra processed when manufacturers add sweeteners, extra salt, and emulsifiers.
The key here is to read ingredient lists on similar products and look for those that are more “basic,” meaning a paired down ingredient list. You can also compare nutrition labels to find the versions with less added sugars, salt, and/or saturated fat.
What are the drawbacks to more processing?
“A primary issue with ultra-processed foods is that they take up room from more nutrient-dense foods,” says Arnold. “Getting full on candy will make you less hungry for something healthier.” So when the amount of UPFs in a diet increases, it crowds out more nutritious processed foods resulting in a net loss of fiber, vitamins, and minerals from the diet.
Too much processing has other health consequences. An association has been suggested between the intake of a large amount of ultra-processed foods and heart conditions, elevated cholesterol, obesity, and certain cancers and digestive issues like Crohn’s disease. Plus, a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high consumption of ultra-processed foods is a greater predictor of premature death, compared to animal-based food consumption.
Alarmingly, one report using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that ultra-processed foods comprised about 60 percent of total calories in the standard U.S. diet, and contribute nearly 90 percent of the daily calorie intake from added sugars.
Certainly, ultra-processed foods are worth eating sparingly. And Arnold says one way to minimize your intake of heavily processed food is to do more food prep and cooking at home. “Batch cooking at home from scratch is a great way to reduce the amount of heavily processed food you may eat as it allows for quick weeknight meals.” And don’t lose sight that this can mean leaning on lesser processed foods like frozen vegetables and canned beans to get the job done.
But even within the UPF category, there are better players. Though the new generation of meatless products, including burgers and “meat” crumbles, are rightly considered ultra-processed, a good argument can be made that the protein, fiber, and nutrients like iron they supply make them a better choice than a hot dog. But they’re likely not as good for you as a more simply processed plant protein, like tofu.
Also, items like gels, chews, and bars that many runners rely on to power their runs can be considered ultra-processed. “Getting fuel during exercise from ultra-processed foods is better than underfueling or not getting fuel at all,” Arnold explains. “If ultra-processed foods make it easy and palatable to meet the body’s energy and nutrient needs during exercise, that will help to ensure the athlete is well fueled for both performance and health.” A berry-flavored gel is going to give you a more useful shot of quick energy than a handful of kale, so a processed option wins out.
What are the benefits of processed foods?
Given the aforementioned definitions, it’s clear that some processed foods are healthy and others less so.
Arnold stresses we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that lesser processed foods can still be dense in nutrition. For instance, a bag of frozen blueberries or broccoli florets, where the fruit and vegetable were quickly frozen after being harvested to lock in the nutrition, are jam-packed with important vitamins and antioxidants without any unwanted add-ins.
Similarly, the anti-inflammatory compounds in processed extra-virgin olive oil are likely a big reason why the Mediterranean Diet is considered the gold standard of healthy eating. Plain flavored Greek yogurt delivers lofty amounts of muscle-friendly protein and gut-benefiting probiotics. Instant oatmeal packets are an example of a processed food that could be beneficial to runners in need of a quick prerun breakfast option, Arnold says. “They’re portable, full of complex carbs, and other beneficial nutrients.”
As such, these processed foods can help you eat more foods higher in vitamins, minerals and nutrients, with a result of better health and performance on the road.
After a long workday or hard-charging run, how often have you been grateful to have canned beans in the pantry or bagged pre-cooked whole grains in the freezer ready to help you get a meal on the table pronto. Not everyone can remember to soak their dried beans the night before. “Pre-cut vegetables are also an example of a processed food that can help decrease cooking and prep time to make it easier to get in more nutrient-dense foods throughout the week,” Arnold says.
Also, processed foods can help people lacking in a lot of culinary wizardly and versatility still eat well. So if packaged or processed foods help you consistently put meals on the table without overtaxing your time, energy, and capability in the kitchen, that’s a good thing.
And don’t overlook affordability. In this era of rising food costs, processed items like pouched fish, frozen fruits and veggies, canned lentils, and packaged oats with their lower price point make it easier to remain within a reasonable grocery budget. A study published in Nutrition Journal found that certain processed foods, like milk and bread, were a cost-effective way for many people to obtain several important nutrients including calcium, iron, vitamin D, and magnesium.
Historically, processed foods fortified with specific nutrients have prevented deficiencies and their related health problems in certain populations. Examples include cereals fortified with iron to prevent anemia, milk fortified with vitamin D to prevent rickets, wheat flour fortified with folic acid to reduce the risk for certain birth defects, and iodine added to salt to limit the chances for goiter (irregular growth of the thyroid gland).
In the end, welcoming a certain amount of processed foods into your diet can help forge a healthier relationship with eating. So go ahead and stock your pantry and freezer.
The Healthiest Processed Foods
It’s almost impossible to list all the processed foods that are still nutritious. But here are some options that deserve a spot on your table. Don’t forget that it’s still worth the effort to read food labels on any packaged food. For instance, sodium levels among canned beans and fish can vary greatly. Added sweeteners can sneak their way into canned tomatoes, nut butters, and even 100 percent whole-grain bread. So take a peak at the label before throwing into your cart.
- Canned Beans
- Canned and Pouched Fish
- Canned Tomatoes
- Canned Unsweetened Fruits and Vegetables
- Dried Fruit
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Frozen Fish, Unbattered
- Frozen Fruits
- Frozen Vegetables
- Low-sugar Cereals and Granola
- Unsweetened Nut and Seed Butters
- Unsweetened Yogurt
- Whole-Grain Bread
- Whole-Grain Pasta