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.
“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 other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.”
By that definition, a rinsed carrot, a chopped apple, and roasted broccoli are all processed foods.
So, is pretty much everything processed food? Nutritionally, the answer is a resounding “no.”
When nutrition experts like myself talk about processed foods, we refer to foods that have been processed to such a degree that there’s been significant nutrient loss and/or a significant addition of unhealthy ingredients (mainly in the form of added sugars, oils, or salt).
Food processing, therefore, exists on a continuum — think of a chopped apple as on the innocuous end and a candy bar on the “ultra fake” end.
To help clarify this confusion, the NOVA food classification system, developed…