Confused About Processed Foods? A Dietitian Explains What’s OK – and What You Should Try to Avoid

Joanna Foley

by | Read time: 5 minutes

When you hear the word processed food, you may think of foods that you have been told are best to avoid. While it is true that many types of processed food are not the best choices for a healthy diet, not all processed foods are the same.

This article will define what exactly processed food is, dispel common myths about it, and give you tips for including processed foods in your diet as needed.
Person Pouring Processed Foods Cereal into White Bowl on Countertop

What is processed food?

Technically speaking, processed food is any food that has been altered from its original state. Based on that definition, the simple acts of drying, canning or milling a food can automatically classify them as processed.

However, there is a wide span when it comes to degree of processing. Foods can be categorized as everything from unprocessed to ultraprocessed, with more categories in between.

Here is breakdown of the types of processed foods:


This category consists of raw foods in their original form.

Minimally processed

This would include foods that may have been dried, pasteurized, fermented or frozen, with the goal of naturally increasing shelf-life and making them safe to eat. Minimally processing a food does not substantially change the nutritional content of it.

Processed foods

These foods typically contain extra sugar, fat, sodium and/or other ingredients like preservatives. They can typically be eaten with minimal to no preparation.

Ultraprocessed foods

These include processed foods to an even greater extent. They typically contain multiple additives, artificial ingredients as well as additional fat, sugar, etc. to make them especially appetizing and even addictive to eat. Like processed foods, they typically require no preparation in order to eat.

The availability and consumption of processed foods have increased significantly over the past several decades, and they are staple items in most American households.

People choose processed foods for many reasons, such as:

  • Affordability
  • Taste
  • Convenience
  • Availability
  • Lack of resources, skill or ability to cook
  • Preferences
  • Habits

Are all processed foods the same?

Just because a food is processed does not mean it is automatically an unhealthy food option. In fact, the act of being processed is not an accurate indicator of the health quality of a food item. There are many processed foods that are nutrient-dense, such as plain yogurt with live and active cultures (aka probiotics), and whole grains like whole wheat bread or pasta.

On the flip side, there are some foods that aren’t as processed, yet remain nutrient-poor. In addition, some foods need to be processed in order to make them safe to consume, or even able to be consumed. Examples include milk that needs to be pasteurized to kill bacteria, or oil that needs to be pressed from a fruit to be extracted and bottled. Other foods may be processed to actually increase the nutritional quality of them, such as through fortification of vitamins and minerals.

When the health industry warns about processed foods, they are most often referring to ultraprocessed foods that have been taken far from their original state and have had multiple ingredients added to them, such as preservatives, artificial flavors, colors and other additives. These types of processed foods are also typically high in unhealthy fats, added sugars and/or sodium while being low in things like fiber, vitamins and minerals. This combination does not support good health. In fact, ultraprocessed foods have been shown by an abundance of research to be linked to obesity, metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, an overall risk of death and much more.

How to choose processed foods

To help you understand the difference between healthier and less healthy forms of processed food, here are some examples:

Examples of less-healthy processed foods include:

  • Frozen “convenience” meals that are simply heat-and-serve
  • Most fast foods
  • Many packaged snacks, desserts, pastries, bars, etc.
  • Many deli meats, sausages, bacon, etc.
  • Sugary beverages
  • Many breakfast cereals

Examples of healthy processed foods may include:

Ultimately, it is not a safe bet to select foods just based on whether or not you believe they are processed. Even some of the foods in these lists, such as snack bars, may or may not be a healthy processed food choice. It all depends on how and what they are made with.

It is always important to read the nutrition labels and check the ingredients list in order to make an informed decision about the health quality of any food item. In general, the closer a food is to its natural state, the better. This is why eating a diet based on mainly whole food sources has been found to be so beneficial to good health.

In addition, it is also important to remember that it is the big picture of your diet that matters most. There will inevitably be times when you eat processed and even ultraprocessed foods, and doing so does not automatically ruin your health. Try to keep your focus on the big picture and know that every positive health decision you make counts!

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