Smart Ways to Pick and Choose Your Processed Foods

In healthy eating terms, "processed" is treated like a four-letter word. The general rule of thumb is to steer clear of foods in that category—but what exactly qualifies? Are all processed food as evil as we're led to believe, or is it ever okay to sacrifice freshness for convenience?
Registered dietitian Becky Hand cautions against following rules such as, "If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it," or "Don’t buy foods with more than five ingredients," as she believes these types of slogans turn into nutrition myths that bring about unnecessary fear and frustration for consumers.
"Personally, I’m thrilled that I can bring home a loaf of whole wheat bread and use it over the next 10 days with no concern for blue fuzzy mold growth," says Hand. "I also like the fact that I can now cook brown rice in 10 minutes or less, and can serve my family a delicious and nutritious spaghetti sauce with the twist of a lid. It's not about making all-or-nothing rules—it's just about having the knowledge to make your own evaluations."

All Processed Foods Are Not Created Equal

Laura Dilz, registered dietitian with Lime and Greens in Cincinnati, defines processed foods as foods that have been altered from their original or natural state to extend shelf life or to enhance flavor, texture or appearance for consumers. "Canning, freezing, fermenting, cooking, baking, drying and smoking are all examples of how foods can be processed," says Dilz. "It's the degree of processing that makes a big difference in a food's nutritional value."
According to registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are three general levels of processing:
  • Minimally processed foods: These foods are processed with no change in nutrient value. Examples include vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
  • Processed ingredients: These include things like salt, table sugar, oils, butter and processed foods like cheese or simple breads.
  • Ultra-processed foods: These are products that contain several manufactured ingredients, such as artificial colors or flavors, preservatives and sweeteners. Examples include soft drinks, frozen dinners, packaged baked goods, breakfast cereals, white breads and rice, chips, candy, and instant soups and noodles.
Many foods that are considered healthy—like bagged leafy greens, coffee, tea, yogurt, frozen fruits and vegetables, canned beans, whole grain bread, peanut butter and olive oil—are all processed. "While these foods have been altered from their original form, they are also full of important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants," says Dilz.
It's the ultra-processed foods that give processing a bad rap, as they've been stripped of nutrients and stuffed with added sugars. In fact, Rumsey points out, a recent study found that 21 percent of their calories come from added sugar (versus processed foods, which contain just 2 percent added sugar, or minimally processed foods that contain no added sugars). Along with that excess sugar comes a higher risk of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
"Another strike against ultra-processed foods is that they're high in saturated fat, sodium and empty calories," says Rumsey. "They also tend to be lacking in the good stuff, like fiber, antioxidants and vitamins and minerals."
And if you're working toward a weight loss goal, ultra-processed foods are not likely to get you there. "Ultra-processed foods are designed to appeal to our taste buds, and can often lead us to crave more," explains Rumsey. "These foods are also easy to eat mindlessly, so you're more likely to overeat without even realizing how much you are having."

Cracking the Code of Processed Ingredients

Reading the list of ingredients on the back of a processed food package isn't likely to whet the appetite. Are all of those chemicals really as scary as they sound?
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), there are over 10,000 chemicals used in food products. "Some are safe, some are 'generally recognized as safe,' some are proven carcinogens and some continue to be controversial," says Dilz. She points out a few chemicals that are potentially more harmful than others:
  • Nitrites and nitrates
  • Sulfites
  • Trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil)
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Artificial food dyes (blue 1, blue 2, caramel coloring, citrus red 2, green 3, orange B, red 3, red 40, yellow 5, yellow 6)
  • Artificial sweeteners (acesulfame-potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose)
  • Potassium bromate
  • Olestra
  • Mycoprotein
But not all of those enigmatic ingredients are bad for you. Our nutritionists identified several ingredients that probably won't wreck a healthy diet:
  • Cellulose: This is a complex carbohydrate molecule that comes from plants. Made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, cellulose gives food products structure and stability, while also helping them retain moisture.
  • Xantham gum: This sugar-like substance is made by fermenting starch (usually corn or wheat) to bacteria, Rumsey explains. It's used as a thickener and emulsifier, helping ingredients blend better and extending their shelf life.
  • Lecithin: Usually derived from eggs, soybeans or sunflower oil, lecithin is a type of fat used as an emulsifier to keep ingredients from separating (such as salad dressing), as a stabilizer (often in bread), as a thickener and as a preservative.
  • Inulin: Also known as "chicory root" or "chicory root extract," inulin is a type of plant-based fiber that occurs naturally in some vegetables, like asparagus and artichokes.
  • Ascorbyl palmitate: This is a fat-soluble form of vitamin C that helps to increase the shelf life of foods and keep their color lasting longer.
  • Phytosterols: These plant derivatives can help lower cholesterol.
  • Maltodextrin: Derived from potatoes, rice or corn, maltodextrin is used to improve the texture of some foods. 
Dilz points out that some vitamins and minerals are commonly used as food preservatives or to fortify certain foods. "Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), beta carotene (a precursor of vitamin A), and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) look scarier than they actually are," she says. For a full list of food additives and colors, visit

5 Questions to Measure the Merits of a Processed Food

When you're racing against the clock to feed a busy, hungry family, it may seem unrealistic to try and purge all processed foods. To determine whether to include a specific food in your diet, Hand suggests starting with these five questions. If you come up with more "yes" than "no" answers, you might consider seeking a healthier alternative.
  1. Did the processing remove any vitamins or minerals?
  2. Did the processing remove any fiber?
  3. Did the processing increase the amount of any types of added sugars (sugar, syrup, cane sugar, beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.)?
  4. Did the processing increase the amount of fat, saturated fat or trans fat?
  5. Did the processing increase the amount of salt or sodium?
Here are four real-world examples:
Instant oatmeal
Answers: No, No, No, No, No
Hand says: "Basically, the processing just rolled the oat flat and cut it into smaller pieces for quicker cooking."
Potato chips
Answers: Yes, Yes, No, Yes, Yes
Hand says: "There has been a large nutritional change to the raw potato."
Canned black beans
Answers: No, No, No, No, Yes
Hand says: "Be sure to drain and rinse the canned black beans to remove about 40 percent of the added sodium."

Chocolate puffed cereal
Answers: Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No
Hand says: "Perhaps that breakfast cereal is really candy in a bowl."

7 Tips for Choosing the Right Kinds of Processed Foods

  1. Can it. Dilz points out that canned fruits and vegetables are processed at peak ripeness, which locks in nutrients so you can reap their benefits for weeks or months after picking. "Tomato sauce actually has a higher lycopene (an antioxidant) content than raw tomatoes," she points out. Dilz also includes canned tuna and beans on her list of diet-friendly processed foods.
  2. Go frozen. Rumsey keeps her freezer stocked with staple produce to fortify daily recipes, like frozen veggies to add to dinners and frozen fruit to toss into breakfast smoothies.
  3. Embrace ready-made salads. "Bagged lettuce is pre-washed and cut for quick and easy use," Dilz notes.
  4. Go with the grain. Skip the refined white starches in favor of 100 percent whole wheat, pasta, oats and brown rice.
  5. Go Greek. "Greek yogurt is a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin D and probiotics," says Dilz. "Look for yogurt products with less than 12 grams of sugar per serving."
  6. Cook with healthy oils. Extra virgin olive oil and canola oil serve as healthier substitutes for margarine, butter and vegetable oils.
  7. Skip packaged snacks. Instead of snacking on a granola bar or a bag of chips, grab a fresh apple, a handful of almonds, whole wheat crackers with nut butter, unsweetened applesauce, beef jerky, roasted edamame or dried fruit.