Eat Well to Be Well: Include processed foods to help eat a healthier diet

Instead of writing off all processed foods as bad, remember that certain processed foods offer valuable nutrients as well as convenience. How many times have you heard this advice: “Avoid processed foods;” “Only shop the perimeter of your grocery store;” or “All processed foods harm your health.”

This well-intentioned but misleading nutritional advice does us no favors unless you understand the definition of processed food. Look inside your refrigerator, freezer, or cupboards, and you’ll be staring at various processed foods such as canned goods or frozen fruits and vegetables.

Let’s admit most foods have been processed before we eat them. Realistically, unless you are growing all the food you eat, you can’t avoid them entirely. While there are certain foods that are highly or ultra processed, many others have been minimally processed, allowing us to safely consume nutritious foods without fear of microbial contamination or food spoilage, among others advantages.

What is a processed food?

Food processing is not a new concept. Our food has undergone processing really since the beginning of mankind. Back in biblical times, way before the advent of electricity, sodium (salt) was used as a means of preserving foods that normally would go bad without refrigeration. This not only helped feed people but also acted as a means of food safety from spoilage.

The definition of a processed food is any method making fresh unprocessed foods (primarily unaltered fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, nuts and seeds) into various food products. The processing component may include washing, chopping, pasteurizing, freezing, packaging, dehydration, or milling. For example, if a farmer grows corn for human consumption, that corn can be sold fresh (with minimal if any processing), or in a more “processed’ form such canned or frozen. Another example might be blueberries, which can be bought fresh, frozen, dried, or also canned for use as a pie or dessert filling.

Types of food processing and their effects on nutrient quality

Food manufacturers rely on various methods of processing of products sold in grocery stores. These means of processing are based on the products’ purpose, which foods are processed, and how it affects the nutrient content of the food. The chart below shows examples of different food processing methods:

PROCESS METHOD AND PURPOSE TYPICAL FOODS EFFECTS ON NUTRIENTS
CANNING Food heated to a high temperature to sterilize it Fruit, fruit preserves, soups, vegetables, beans, meats Loss of vitamins C and B; minerals left intact
DRYING Dehydrate food eliminating water microbes require for growth Fruit, vegetables, meats Most nutrients left intact
FREEZING Freezing stops bacterial growth and slows enzymatic reactions Fruit, vegetables, ready-to-bake dough’s, meats, mixed dishes Very minimal nutrient loss. Frozen fruits and vegetables (with no added sugar or sauces) are often superior nutritionally to fresh
MODIFIED ATMOSPHERE PACKAGING Preserves foods’ freshness by removing air when placed in a gas-impermeable container Ready-to-eat salads, cut fruits, baked goods, fresh and preserved meats Preserves vitamins by slowing enzymatic breakdown
PASTEURIZING Food exposed to high temperature for long enough time reducing bacterial contamination Refrigerated foods such as milk, fruit juice, and eggs Causes minimal loss of nutrients
ULTRA-HIGH-TEMPERATURE PROCESSING Food exposed to high temperature for a short time to reduce microbes Shelf-stable foods such as boxed milk or boxed fruit juice Causes minimal loss of nutrients

The positive impact of food processing generally outweighs the negatives. The benefits include:

  • Enhances food safety.
  • Convenience.
  • Increases diversity.
  • Helps make foods more edible.
  • Preserves nutrient quality.
  • Reduces food waste.
  • Allows food manufacturers to increase nutrient content through fortification and enrichment.

Healthy processed foods to choose – highly processed foods to avoid

Thanks to food processing, there are plenty of healthy processed foods to choose from, many that are minimally processed. For example, milk is a processed food. It’s been pasteurized and has been fortified with bone-building calcium and immunity-boosting vitamin D, nutrients we may be lacking. As long as we don’t replace foods naturally containing nutrients such as these, food fortification and enrichment help make our food supply more nutritious, minimizing nutrient deficiencies. Keep in mind, however, some fortified foods may also contain high amounts of sugar or sodium or are fortified with nutrients few of us are deficient in.

Oatmeal is a minimally processed food rich in gut-healthy fiber as well as minimally processed canned salmon or tuna, excellent sources of protein. Even baby carrots and broccoli cut into florets are considered as processed, because they have been altered from their original form, yet few of us would categorize them as such.

When looking at not-so-healthy processed foods, it’s easy to see they have not been designed with health in mind. Rather the priority is focused on making them cheap, convenient, and tasty, factors that sell well.

While occasionally enjoying a store-bought cookie is fine, a daily indulgence of predominately ultra-processed foods can backfire. High in refined carbohydrates (lacking whole grains and fiber), added sugar, saturated fats, and salt, these same foods trick your taste buds into eating a lot of them before you feel full. With each bite, you are often taking in more calories than you realize, contributing to weight gain and increasing the risk of health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure. Chips, crackers, candy, sugary beverages, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, microwave popcorn, pretzels, and boxed dinners are a few examples of highly processed foods to choose less often.

Choose healthy processed foods

There are several ways to eat healthy that still includes minimally processed foods. Here are key steps to follow:

  • Read food labels. The most important step is to avoid foods with excess added sugar and sodium. There are many processed foods deceptively high in sugar – breads, jarred pasta sauce, ketchup, and breakfast cereals. A major contributor to sodium intake (about 70 percent) is from highly processed foods. Sodium is commonly added to some products to preserve shelf life and for taste. Common high sodium processed foods include canned soups, vegetables, sauces, and beef jerky. Choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium helping reduce sodium intake.
  • Enjoy frozen and canned produce without salty sauces or sugary syrups.
  • Cook more meals at home.
  • Swap highly processed for less-processed options. Instead of buying bottle salad dressing, make your own extra-virgin olive oil vinaigrette. Instead of choosing instant oatmeal, add fruit to plain oatmeal. Choose Greek yogurt, lower in sugar than non-Greek yogurt. Use leftover roasted chicken instead of using processed deli meat.
  • Snack smarter. For a crunchy snack, choose unsalted nuts and seeds, or cut up veggies for dipping. Craving something sweet? Fruits, dried or fresh, or homemade granola are healthier ways to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Take home message

Just because a food may be processed, does not automatically make it bad or unhealthy. Fortunately, there are plenty of nutritious processed foods to choose from. Without food processing, we would be unable to enjoy the variety of healthy and safe foods grocery stores have to offer.

So, rather than just shopping the perimeter of a grocery store, it’s perfectly fine to check out the aisles, too. Otherwise you’ll miss out on many minimally processed foods that contribute to good health.


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain: The Latest Science On Food’s Power For Protecting The Brain From Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook. Visit her website at www.eatwelltobewellrd.com.


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