What Is Processed Food?

What Is Processed Food?

Posted by Julie on Oct 28th 2016

We hear a lot about how processed food is unhealthy, but what is processed food? It's important to be able to recognize something in order to avoid it. In this post, we'll cover what it really means for food to be processed. You might discover processed food isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Definition of Processed Food

The International Food Information Council Foundation defines food processing as follows:

Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.

If you read that and concluded that peeling, slicing, and cooking are all ways of processing food, you're right. Short of eating apples straight from the tree or carrots directly out of the ground, almost everything we eat requires some processing.

The Continuum of Processed Food

Not all foods are processed to the same degree before eating. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics laid out a continuum of processing that can help us better understand when food processing is necessary and helpful, and when we'd be better off eating something different.

What Is Processed Food?: Frozen meals and pizzas are some of the most highly processed foods.

From least processed to most highly processed:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables, including those that are pre-washed, peeled or sliced;
  • Many canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as canned beans and tuna;
  • Packaged foods which require some preparation prior to eating, such as dry pasta, mixes, sauces and dressings;
  • Foods that can be eaten directly out of the package, such as breakfast cereal, snack chips and cookies, and deli or lunch meats;
  • Prepared meals and pizzas that have been frozen and must be reheated before eating.

Check the Ingredient List

One easy way to determine how much a food has been processed is to check the ingredient list. The San Francisco Chronicle notes, "The longer the ingredient list, the more processed a food is likely to be."

What Is Processed Food?: Canned tomatoes are more processed than fresh tomatoes, but canned tomatoes are much less processed than many other foods.

Obviously a tomato doesn't have an ingredient list printed on it, but a can of diced tomatoes does. Look at the difference between what's in butter and what's in a vegetable oil spread. Read through the ingredients in a jar of jam or peanut butter, or even a loaf of bread. You can also go to the frozen food aisle and grab a pizza or microwave dinner.

Better yet, think about the difference between the ingredient list on a package of chocolate chip cookies on the store shelf, and what goes into a batch you've baked yourself.

In short, processed food isn't unhealthy or non-nutritious by definition. Instead, consider the amount of processing and the length of the ingredient list when making choices between different foods.