You’ve probably heard in the news that processed foods are bad for you. They’re frequently blamed for high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes in America.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Not all processed foods are bad for you, and it’s important to know which ones you need, which ones can help you save, and which ones to avoid.
What Is Processed Food?
There is a whole range of processed food, and the more processed it is, the less likely it is to be good for you.
Barely processed foods are things that you can find at the store that have been prepped for you for your convenience. These include:
- Washed and bagged lettuce and spinach
- Precut or chopped fruit or veggies
- Roasted nuts
Foods processed at their peak lock in and preserve nutrition, quality, and freshness. These include:
- Canned tomatoes
- Frozen fruit and vegetables
- Canned tuna
Foods with added ingredients may have better flavor and texture, but they can also be worse for you. While these ingredients help preserve quality, they can also have higher sugar, fat, and unnatural additives. These frequently include sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives. Foods with added ingredients include:
- Jarred pasta sauce
- Salad dressing
- Cake mixes
Ready-to-eat foods are usually heavily processed with lots of added ingredients. These include:
- Granola bars
- Prepackaged deli meat
Frozen and premade meals are usually the most heavily processed with lots of added ingredients, including salt and preservatives to make them last. These include:
- Frozen pizza
- Frozen meals
- Microwaveable dinners
Positives of Processed Foods
As you can see, some processed foods are good for you. Fresh fruits and veggies that have just been chopped and washed before being packaged really just save you time. (Although you usually have to pay more for that time savings.)
Foods processed at their peak are a great way to save, with the same nutrition at a lower price than fresh.
And some foods with added ingredients are actually better for you. Many kinds of milk and juice have more calcium and vitamin D added in. Some breakfast cereals have added fiber.
Problems with Processed Foods
The 3 biggest problems with processed foods are added sugars, salt, and fat.
Sugars aren’t just in candy and prepackaged desserts. They’re added in all kinds of foods, and you may not even know it.
- Breads can have added sugars to give them a nice brown color.
- Canned pasta sauce generally has a surprising amount of added sugar.
- Many cereals are heavily sweetened.
- Fruit canned in syrup is filled with sugar.
Salting your food isn’t to blame for high levels of sodium in your diet. 3/4 of the salt you take in comes from processed food.
- Most canned vegetables, soups, sauces, and beans have added sodium to improve the taste and texture and to help preserve them on the shelf.
- Premade meals and snacks are full of extra salt to make them taste better and preserve them.
Added fats make food shelf-stable and tastier. But trans fats in processed foods can raise your bad cholesterol.
Many products with added fats have really small serving sizes, and if you eat more than that, you’re eating a lot of trans fat in one sitting.
For instance, a serving size of Oreos is just 3 cookies, and those 3 cookies have 7 grams of fat, which is 11% of your recommended daily total of fat. Do you actually eat just 3 Oreos in a sitting? Just doubling to 6 cookies puts you over 20% of your daily fat total!
Smart Processed Foods Choices
Now that you know the basics, how can you pick out processed foods that are good for you?
- Look for fortified milk and juice, which have added calcium and vitamins.
- Avoid things like white bread, which are so refined that most of the healthy fiber has been removed in the processing. Look for whole grain breads, tortillas, and pastas instead.
- Buy canned fruit packed in water or 100% fruit juice. Avoid fruit packed in syrup and fruit juice concentrate, which have added sugar.
- Even if a product says it’s organic or all-natural, it can still have added sugar. Too much cane sugar and honey can be just as bad for you as too much corn syrup.
- Carbohydrates on the nutrition label include naturally occurring sugars, like in yogurt and fruit. Instead, look at the ingredients list to see if sugar has been added. Look for:
- Brown sugar
- Corn syrup
- Cane sugar
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Check things you might not think you need to for sugar, like cereals, even plain kinds, and pasta sauce.
- Look for reduced or low sodium on things like canned vegetables, soups, and beans. You can always add a little bit of salt when you’re cooking if you need it.
- Always rinse canned beans and vegetables, which can lower the salt content by 40%.
- Even if a product says it has zero trans fat, check the ingredients. If it has any hydrogenated vegetable oils, then it’s going to have some trans fat.
And most importantly, just try to eat heavily processed foods in moderation and make the most of healthier processed foods in a balance with fresh foods.
Making sense of food labels is easy with our handy guide.
Make the most of your next grocery shopping trip to boost your diet and make healthy choices.