The Truth About Processed Foods - Beautiful Eats & Things

The Truth About Processed Foods

Is it really that bad to eat a granola or protein bar? Should I avoid everything down the aisles and only shop fresh? I’ll help you filter through these questions and more as we discuss the truth about processed foods!

picture of processed foods that includes canned fruits and vegetables, frozen meat, and salad dressing

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods are foods that have been altered in some way that is different from its natural form. For example, if we compare a head of lettuce to a bag of shredded romaine lettuce. The romaine lettuce has been shredded, which means it’s been altered from its original form. Does this now mean that it is unhealthy? Nope, not at all! 

Listed below are methods of processing:

  • Drying, such as dried raisins
  • Canning, such as canned vegetables
  • Freezing, such as frozen fruit
  • Chopping or cutting 
  • Pasteurizing

Are All Processed Foods Bad?

Unfortunately, the term “processed food” has taken on a bad reputation. In today’s world where there is so much busyness and a lack of adequate nutrition still amongst Americans, packaged processed foods can provide a healthful place in our diet. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of processed foods.

Minimally Processed

This typically involves removing inedible parts. It doesn’t involve adding anything to the food. Some methods are used to preserve the food and make it safe to eat.  

Examples of this include:

  • Pasteurization
  • Fermentation
  • Vacuum-packaging

What types of foods fall into this category?

  • Dairy milk
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Meat, fish, eggs
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables

Processed Cooking Ingredients

You can think of these as the ingredients you use while cooking. Like oils, butter, salt, sugar and honey. These ingredients have gone through milling, refining, pressing or grinding from the foods mentioned above.

picture of processed foods that includes canned black beans, canned tomatoes, canned peaches

Processed foods

These can include foods where salt, oil and sugar have been added. Some of these foods can be readily eaten without further prep, like canned tuna, canned fruit and cheese. 

Examples of this includes:

  • Smoking, curing
  • Pickling
  • Canning

What types of foods fall into this category?

  • Wine, beer, cider
  • Salted meats (smoked turkey, ham hocks, bacon, sausage, etc.)
  • Cheese
  • Canned/pickled vegetables
  • Canned fruit
  • Canned meat or fish


These types of foods have been significantly changed from their original form and have gone through several processing steps and may include artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives…but that does not automatically categorizes those foods as unhealthy.

picture of processed foods that includes breakfast cereal-general mills cheerios

What types of foods fall into this category?

  • Canned soup
  • Plant based milk
  • Some frozen dinners
  • Some luncheon meats
    • Better choices are the uncured deli meats without nitrates and nitrites
  • Some breakfast cereals
    • Better choices are ones with more fiber and less added sugar
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Packaged cookies and chips

Ultra processed foods have been known to include less desirable features such as increased sodium and added sugars, but this is not particularly true for all ultra processed foods. In fact, packaged foods can actually add nutritional value to your overall diet. They have been shown to increase dietary fiber by 55%, increase potassium by 43%, increase calcium by 48% and increase whole grain consumption by 40%.

picture of processed foods that includes canned fruits and vegetables, frozen meat, and salad dressing

What Should I Look Out For With Processed Foods?

One of the best things you can do when buying processed food is to review the label. I know what you might be thinking…”who wants to read a food label?” It might sound tedious, but it’s really important for your overall health. And actually, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Look for processed foods that have at least 10% of the daily value in some of the more common, under consumed nutrients like:

  • Fiber
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Iron
  • Vitamin E
  • Magnesium

Whenever you see a food that has 20% or more of these nutrients even better! That means that that particular food is high in that nutrient. 

What to limit

Not all processed foods are the same. Some are definitely better choices than others. You’ll want to carefully watch and/or limit added sugars, sodium and saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends to keep total added sugars under 25 grams per day for women and under 36 grams per day for men. Remember added sugars are different from total sugars. Total sugars include naturally occurring sugar from fruit and dairy products, for example. Fruit and dairy also have important nutrients like calcium, vitamin C, potassium and more, so we don’t want to eliminate these foods. 

When looking at the sodium and saturated fat, choose foods more often where the % daily value is at 5% or less. 

Look for whole ingredients

As often as you can choose processed foods that include whole food ingredients. You’ll especially want to see this when looking at the first ingredient. Which by weight means that it is pretty widespread in that food. 

How Can Processed Foods Fit Within a Healthy Diet?

One of our jobs, as a Registered Dietitian, is to help guide you in choosing the best foods for you and your family. We want to meet you where you are and help with simple changes that can actually last. Huge leaps and bounds usually means that at some point we can’t keep up with it. To make processed foods fit in a healthy diet try pairing a processed food with a whole food, like what’s listed below.

  • A healthier frozen meal + a salad 
  • A bar + a fruit 
  • Yogurt + berries + chia or ground flaxseeds

My Best Recommendations When Grocery Shopping

To make meal and snack time easier, I’ve listed some of my best recommendations. 

Fruits & Veggies

  • Frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Unsweetened applesauce
  • Canned fruit in it’s own juices


  • Tofu, tempeh or another plant-based alternative that’s low in sodium
  • Canned or bagged/pre-cooked beans and lentils
  • Frozen turkey burgers


  • Popcorn
  • Veggie snacks where the first ingredient is vegetables 
  • High fiber bars 

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