What Does ‘Processed Food’ Even Mean, and Why Is It So Bad?

It shouldn’t be confusing, but it is. A nutrition expert explains what processed food is, what kind should be avoided, and how it impacts your health.

Andy Bellatti MS, RD
Elemental
Published in
4 min readFeb 12, 2020

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Photo: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

“L“Limit or avoid processed foods” has become a familiar nutrition mantra over the last decade. On the surface, it sounds fairly straightforward: Go easy on the double-stuffed cookies and neon orange chips.

But walk through any grocery store and it’s easy to get confused. Is bread — even the healthy whole grain sprouted kind — processed? How about canned beans? And what about that “paleo-friendly” protein bar with “natural” on its packaging?

The world of processed food is simultaneously simple and complex. I’ll break it down for you.

What are processed foods, exactly?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a legal and technical definition of a processed food: “any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of…

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Andy Bellatti MS, RD
Elemental

Dietitian with whole-food, plant-centric approach. No, you don't need a juice cleanse.