Click 'Back to Intro' to return to the beginning of this section.

Processed Food: The Fewer the Ingredients, the Better

Processed food gets a bad rap as the cause of many health problems: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer. But what exactly is processed food, and how unhealthy is it, really?

The term “processed food” can mean a variety of things. Any food changed from its natural state is considered processed, even if that’s as simple as washed salad greens. Nutrition researchers have developed a system of describing processed foods called NOVA. Foods are divided into the following groups:

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These are the edible parts of plants and animals. “Minimally processed” means removing inedible parts, drying, and freezing to extend freshness. No sugar, salt, or oil is added to these foods.

Examples: apples, kale, frozen strawberries (without added sugar), eggs, ground beef.

Processed culinary ingredients. These ingredients are used to season and cook other foods. They are processed via techniques such as pressing, refining, or grinding.

Examples: salted butter, vinegar, sugar, honey, maple syrup, vegetable oils.

Processed foods. These fairly simple foods are made by adding processed culinary ingredients to unprocessed food to preserve freshness or improve taste.

Examples: canned vegetables, fruits, and legumes; salted or roasted nuts; canned fish; freshly baked breads.

Ultra-processed foods. These industrially produced foods usually have five or more ingredients. Not only do they contain sugar, salt, and oils, these foods also include additives such as dyes, stabilizers, natural flavors, flavor enhancers, and anti-caking agents. Ultra-processed foods are “ready-to-eat” or require only minimal preparation.

Examples: pre-packaged snacks like potato chips and crackers, ice cream, carbonated drinks, energy bars, breakfast cereal, sausages, frozen meals, cakes and cookies, margarines, mass-produced bread, instant soup.

What Are the Health Risks?

The salt, sugar, and fat added to many processed foods can harm your health. For example, many studies have linked weight gain to eating processed foods such as refined grains and sugary drinks. These foods are high in quickly digested carbohydrates, which don’t tend to be satisfying or filling—and may lead to you eating more. In addition, a recent study in TheBMJ found that people who ate 10 percent more ultra-processed foods were at much greater risk for overall cancer and breast cancer compared with those who ate fewer of these foods.

Which Foods Are OK to Eat?

Fortunately, it’s not hard to determine how processed a food is. Look at the nutrition label for added sodium, sugars, and fats, as well as the overall number of ingredients.

It’s best to eat whole foods that are minimally processed, but you can make exceptions for foods preserved for convenience and freshness. For example, frozen fruit and vegetables, canned fish and canned beans, unsweetened yogurt, and nut butters are all healthy choices. While everyone enjoys the occasional ice cream cone or bag of chips, eating fewer ultra-processed foods will make a big difference to your health.

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.