Processed Food Explained

Ask the Nutritionist

Q: I was recently told to cut processed foods out of my diet. Can you clarify what processed foods are?

 Samantha Duprey, Northfield, Vermont 

A: "Processed foods" is a term that is used often but rarely defined. The definition of a processed food is unfortunately broad. According to the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a processed food includes everything from white flour to frozen strawberries to hot dogs. The technical definition of a processed food is one that has "undergone a transformation from the raw form either to extend shelf-life — such as the freezing or dehydration of fruits and vegetables — or to improve consumer palatability of raw commodities — such as transforming grain and animal products into bakery and meat products."

What this means is that as soon as a piece of fruit is picked, frozen, and bagged, it becomes a processed food even though the integrity of the food itself has not changed. On the other hand, this also means that when animal products are formed into deli lunch meats, they too become defined as processed foods. However, a frozen strawberry and a slice of bologna would hardly be considered in the same food group.

This is where the limiting of processed foods becomes complicated. While some foods are minimally processed, like the frozen strawberry, others are combined with additional additives for taste and shelf-life, like the bologna.

So a good rule of thumb when limiting processed foods is to look to the label. If there are a myriad of added ingredients, such as in this processed cheese slice, then steer clear:

Ingredients: milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, contains less than 2 percent of salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), enzymes, vitamin D3, cheese culture. Contains: milk.

However, if the ingredient list is simplified and contains recognizable items, such as in these crackers, then feel free to add them into your diet in moderation:

Ingredients: organic short grain brown rice, organic whole quinoa, organic brown flax seeds, organic brown sesame seeds, filtered water, sea salt, organic wheat-free tamari (water, whole organic soybeans, salt, organic alcohol). Contains soy.

Removing all processed foods from your diet is unnecessary. Technically, frozen fruits and vegetables, coffee, honey and dairy are all considered processed foods. However, removing highly processed foods and replacing them with whole grains (versus processed white flour), lean meats (versus processed deli meats), and fruits and vegetables is the best way to approach a healthful, balanced diet. Be sure to check the labels for things like granola bars, crackers, or other snack foods and pick the least processed options.

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