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Understanding Processed Foods - What to Avoid and Why

Understanding Processed Foods - What to Avoid and Why

Reading Time: 6 minutes 36 seconds


DATE: 2019-10-18

The term processed food is a bad word in health and wellness, but do most people truly understand it? Do your clients know how to make food choices that are both healthful and practical?

The truth is that processed is a broad term for food and some products in this category are just fine to eat, while others should be avoided.

The worst of the worst are the ultra-processed foods. These foods tend to have less nutritional value and are designed to taste good and to trigger cravings. Think of a packaged chocolate chip cookie or a bag of cheesy poofs.

Americans are eating far too much of these kinds of products. According to a study that looked at the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination, ultra-processed foods account for 60 percent of calories consumed in the American diet (1).

What Exactly Are Processed Foods?

To have a better understanding of processed foods, the role they play in health, and whether or not we should avoid them, we need to know what they are.

There are many misconceptions about processed foods. For example, did you realize that an apple cut into slices is technically a processed food?

A processed food is any food that has been changed in some way from its natural state, including cooked, frozen, canned, packaged, fortified, preserved, or prepared foods.

By this definition, most foods are processed. So, yes, that apple you sliced is now processed, but clearly there are degrees:

  • Minimally-processed foods. These are what we tend to think of as whole foods, but which have been prepped for convenience or preservation. Bagged, washed lettuces, shelled nuts, vacuum-sealed meats, and pasteurized milk fall into this category.

  • Foods processed to preserve nutrition. Some whole foods are processed at their peak to preserve nutritional value. This includes frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes, canned tuna, and similar products.

  • Foods processed to change flavor or texture. Taking the process one step further, some foods are prepped and preserved but with additives for optimizing flavor and texture. Typical additives are fat, sugar, and salt. Jarred spaghetti sauce, for instance, is more than just tomatoes; it also has sugar and other ingredients added. Other examples are yogurt, boxed cake mixes, bread, and salad dressing.

  • Ready-to-eat processed foods. The above foods are ready to eat but are typically used as ingredients to make other foods. A ready-to-eat food has been processed further to be eaten as is. This includes crackers, cookies, cereal, deli meats, and bakery products.

  • Ultra-processed foods. The most heavily processed foods are those that are ready-to-eat, complete meals and foods that include more than just extra salt, sugar, and fat. They also contain chemical preservatives or artificial colors and flavors. Frozen meals and many ready-to-eat foods, like cookies and deli meats, are ultra-processed.

Understanding processed foods can be complicated, but eating well shouldn't be. Help your clients make better food choices with these eight simple tips.

How Are Processed Foods Bad for Health?

When it comes to avoiding or limiting processed foods, focus on reducing ready-to-eat and ultra-processed products. These products are not the best choices for optimal health for several reasons:

Some Processed Foods Have Too Much Fat, Sugar, and Salt

One of the main ways in which processed foods are bad for your health is in the added sugar, salt, and fat. You can't control the amount of these nutrients that go into processed products. If you eat a lot of these foods the amount you take in each day can easily skyrocket to risky levels.

Teach your clients how to count and limit added sugars in their diets. This ISSA blog post will show you how.

Ultra-Processed Food is Linked to Obesity

That extra fat and sugar may account for rising obesity. Studies have found that as access to ultra-processed foods has increased, obesity rates have also gone up. A study supported by the UN found that the ready availability of these foods is becoming a world crisis (2).

According to the study, people around the world are increasingly consuming processed foods that are energy-dense, high in refined starches, sugar, fat, and salt and low in protein, fiber, and other nutrients. The researchers also found that these foods are marketed in such a way that leads to overconsumption, which of course may result in obesity and related health problems.

Basically, many ultra-processed foods have a high amount of calories compared to nutrients. This can lead to weight gain if you don't balance out these foods with minimally processed and whole foods richer in important nutrients.

Processing Can Remove Nutrients

Some processing techniques actually remove nutrients. For instance, peeled and canned fruit has less fiber than a whole piece of fruit. Grains that have been processed and refined, such as white flour or white rice, lose fiber and also vitamins and minerals.

Artificial Additives May Be Bad for Health

Many ultra-processed foods have more than just added sugar or fat; they also have added flavors, preservatives, and both artificial and natural substances known as additives. It's not accurate to say all food additives are bad, but there are a lot of them. Some may have health risks.

Nitrate and related substances are good examples of additives to avoid. Found largely in processed meats, they are used to preserve meat, prevent bacterial growth, and add flavor and color. These additives, though, have been linked to a higher risk of developing cancer, including stomach and esophageal cancers (3).

Some additives are particularly risky for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned about these risks. In a position paper, the Academy warned that artificial food colors, for instance, could contribute to the symptoms of ADHD (4).

Are There Any Benefits to Processed Foods?

Absolutely. Processing is not all bad. If your kid is more likely to eat a sliced than a whole apple, that's a good processed food, right? On the other hand, a bowl of sugar cereal may be easier than making oatmeal in the morning, but the latter is much better for your health. There is a balance.

There are various reasons to process foods:

  • For a longer shelf life

  • For convenience

  • To change the color or flavor

  • To alter the nutritional content

  • For texture or mouthfeel

Minimally processed foods, or foods that have been simply preserved, last longer and are less likely to go to waste. Those processed for convenience make it easier, and therefore more likely that you will eat healthy foods, like pre-washed lettuce. Modern preservation techniques protect us from harmful bacteria and potentially deadly illnesses. And when foods are fortified or enriched, such as flour and cereals, you get more essential nutrients.

How to Make Smart Choices with Processed Foods

Not all processed foods are bad, but the term is clearly confusing. Without an education in nutrition and diet it can be tough to know what to choose and what to avoid. Here are some easy pointers to give your clients about eating a healthful, varied diet while reducing the risk posed by some processed foods:

  • Choose more whole foods. When possible, eat whole foods or those that are minimally processed. This means eating fresh produce, whole grains, canned beans, and meats and fish without preservatives.

  • Don't be afraid of frozen. Frozen vegetables and fruits are great for getting more produce in your diet without waste. A bag of frozen spinach will last all year and can be blended easily into a smoothie. On the other hand, that fresh bag of spinach will start rotting by the end of the week. Just avoid frozen veggies and fruits with added sauces, salt, or sugar.

  • Read labels. Some ready-to-eat and ultra-processed foods are worse than others when it comes to additives and extra sugar, fat, and salt. Sometimes you need these fast foods for convenience, so compare labels to choose those with less added sugar, lower sodium, fewer grams of saturated fats, and fewer chemical additives in the ingredient list.

  • Change up snack foods. This is where many of us turn to processed, packaged foods. Try swapping out cookies, crackers, chips, and similar snacks with veggie sticks, fresh fruit, a homemade smoothie, or nuts.

  • Eat out less. You can't control what goes into your foods when you eat out at restaurants. It's possible to make smarter choices, for example choosing a salad with oil and vinegar instead of dressing poured all over it. But, the more you eat out the more you will be consuming processed foods and additives. Cook at home more often for more control over what you eat.

Understanding processed foods can be difficult, but if you can guide your clients to sort through the many complicated options they'll make better, more healthful choices.

Check out the ISSA's course for becoming a Certified Nutritionist so you can coach clients and help them make better food choices.


  1. Steele, E.M., Baraldi, L.G., da Costa Louzada, M.L., Moubarac, J., Mozaffarian, D., and Monteiro, C.A. (2016). Ultra-Processed Foods and Added Sugars in the US Diet: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study. BMJ. 6(3). e009892. Retrieved from https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/3/e009892

  2. Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J., and Levy, R. B. (2018). The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA Food Classification and the Trouble with Ultra-Processing. Public Health Nutrition. 21(1), 5-17. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/un-decade-of-nutrition-the-nova-food-classification-and-the-trouble-with-ultraprocessing/2A9776922A28F8F757BDA32C3266AC2A

  3. Jakszyn, P. and Gonzalez, C.A. (2006). Nitrosamine and Related Food Intake and Gastric and Esophageal Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review of the Epidemiological Evidence. World J. Gastroenterol. 12(27): 4296-303. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16865769

  4. Trasande, L. and Shaffer, R.M. (2018) Food Additives and Child Health. Pediatrics.142(2), e20181408. Retrieved from https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/2/e20181408..info

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