What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the term “processed food?” Maybe it’s that greasy spoon diner down the block, or the entire frozen pizza section at the grocery store. But we’re willing to bet you didn’t think of those pre-sliced organic mangos from Whole Foods, or that triple-washed bag of fresh spinach. In truth—they’re all, technically, "processed."
In recent years, "processed food" has become synonymous with "unhealthy food," and processing has become an infamous black mark to health-conscious consumers. But despite widespread backlash against processing, most people still struggle to define the term. And knowing the difference between healthy and harmful processing will help you choose wisely and fuel your body with the best choices for long-term health – both improving how good you’ll feel each day and reducing risks to your health. .
What is Processed Food?
"Processed food" means food that has been altered in some way during its preparation. So unless you’re eating your fruits and vegetables straight from the ground, everything you consume, once it’s cooked or prepared, even at home, is technically "processed." Consult the USDA website, and you’ll find a laundry list of "processing" activities that includes everything from basic washing, chopping, and drying to more harmful modifications, like adding chemicals and preservatives.
In other words, it’s simplest to think of processing as a spectrum, rather than as a binary classification: Foods on the left of the spectrum are more natural and nutritious; the farther right you move, the more synthetic and unhealthy they get. Here’s a breakdown:
Minimally processed foods are those that have only been physically changed — for example, via bagging, washing, cutting, canning or freezing. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables fall into this category—and often come in preservative-free forms. A good rule of thumb? Ask yourself, "Could I do this at home?" If the answer is yes, it’s probably minimally processed—and likely perfectly healthy!
Farther right on the spectrum are foods with oils, sugars, or salts added for flavor or texture. Some examples: simple breads, cheese, tofu, yogurt, jarred pasta sauces, and salad dressings. These foods have been altered, but not necessarily in a way that’s bad for you. Still, if you’re looking for a less processed choice, check the labels to compare ingredient content (see below for the most common red-flag ingredients), or make a DIY option from scratch when possible.
Deli meats or cheeses, chips, crackers, and packaged pastries comprise the next tier of processed foods. First, they’re so processed that they’re low on fiber and they tend to spike your blood sugar and lead to weight gain. Moreover, food companies pump them with sodium, sugar, fat, and preservatives to make you crave them and keep you coming back for more. So don't be too hard on yourself the next time you find yourself elbow-deep in a bag of potato chips. But for best results don’t buy those chips in the first place.
Finally, there’s the ultra-processed foods: frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets, french fries, soda, and sweetened cereals, just to name a few. In addition to the blood sugar and sodium, sugar, far, and preservative problem, these often contain tons of artificial ingredients, which can cause inflammation in the body. Refer back to that first rule of thumb here: Could you recreate this yourself at home? Or would you need a lab and a half dozen chemicals to do it?
It’s buyer beware when it comes to navigating the minefield of processed foods. Here are three tips that can help steer you clear of the bad stuff:
1. Read Labels
Below you’ll find the most common harmful ingredients in highly processed foods. While this list is long, it’s not exhaustive. So when in doubt, consider the source. Apples come from trees—but can you quickly trace where acesulfame potassium comes from? If it’s not from nature (or you find yourself tongue-tied while reading the ingredients), walk away.
High fructose corn syrup: Brands like high-fructose corn syrup because it’s a cheaper alternative to cane sugar. You’ll find it in soda, juice, candy, breakfast cereals and snacks, among many other foods. Overconsumption of high fructose corn syrup can cause obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium are all artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, for example, is almost 200 times sweeter than cane sugar, so brands save themselves money by using way less than they would have to with its natural counterpart. There have been a number of conflicting studies on the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners, with many linking them to seizures, depression, and cancers. Your best bet—as with sugar and other sweeteners—is to limit your intake.
Sodium nitrite: This is a preservative typically used in processed meats. It prevents bacterial growth, while adding a salty flavor. It can increase your risk of heart disease and damage blood vessels.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): BHA and BHT are common synthetic preservatives that keep food color and flavor from changing. They’re often found in cereals, gum, fast food, drink mixes, shortening, and snack foods. They’ve been linked to increased risk of cancer.
Hydrogenated oil: Hydrogenated oil contains a high amount of trans fats, which greatly increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Artificial food coloring: The most harmful artificial food colorings are Yellow #5 and #6, Blue #1 and Blue #2, Reds, and Green #3. They’re believed to cause everything from hyperactivity in kids to chromosomal damage. Many of these dyes are already banned in some European countries. In the US, the FDA tried and failed to have Red #3 banned.
2. Beware of Sneaky Marketing
Ultra-processed foods are often labeled as "healthy" or "low-fat"—sometimes to distract from their unhealthy ingredients. Other times, they may highlight a healthy ingredient, like whole grain—but fail to mention other artificial ingredients. When in doubt, just refer back to the ingredient list. Look for short lists with ingredients you can readily recognize, and that you would find in your own home kitchen.
3. Work Smarter—Not Harder—For Your Food
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a headache. Remember that frozen vegetables have the same nutrition as fresh ones—so there’s no detriment to your health. Plus, you won’t risk wasting produce that goes bad before you can use it.
The food industry has been dominated by overly processed players for far too long. It’s about time we found a way to save time, reduce waste—and still eat 100% good, natural food.
Haley is a freelance writer and first-grade teacher in Brooklyn. She is also a part-time writer at Mosaic, a company that delivers plant-based meals to make healthy eating easy. She specializes in food and wellness content in between inspiring the next generation of writers.