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What Are Processed Foods and Which Are Okay To Eat?


Processed food is any food that has been altered before you eat it. This may include deseeding, adding chemicals, cutting, or implementing any other type of process that changes the food before it is sold. With this loose and overarching definition, even carrot sticks could be considered processed foods since they were washed, sliced, and placed in a bag prior to consumption.

Many assume the term “processed food” indicates a food has been altered in an unhealthy way before being placed on grocery store shelves. However, that is not always the case.

Food processing equipment has many benefits to the world, such as making food more sanitary, safe, or convenient to eat. By analyzing different processed foods and determining which are healthy and which you need to avoid, you will ensure your diet includes foods that are good for you.

What Are Processed Foods?

The term “processed foods” encompasses a variety of foods you’re likely to see in the grocery store. You may assume that all processed foods come in boxes or bags and contain added sugars or artificial flavors. While it’s true that these are considered processed foods, the term also refers to foods that haven’t been altered much at all.

Even fruits and vegetables that have been sliced, pureed, or prepared in some way without added ingredients are considered processed foods. Since they’ve technically been changed from their natural state before consumption, the term “processed” also applies even if nothing unhealthy has been added.

Before assuming you must stay away from all processed foods to stay healthy, it’s important to understand what’s taken place during processing and whether it will affect your health. By reviewing both the “good” and “bad” processing that occurs with food, you can determine which foods to add to your diet and which ones to keep out of your shopping cart.

How Foods Become Processed

To be considered a processed food, a product simply needs to have undergone one type of process that altered its natural state. Some common ways that foods are processed include the following:

  • Washing
  • Canning
  • Freezing
  • Pasteurizing
  • Baking
  • Cooking
  • Grilling
  • Frying
  • Adding ingredients.
  • Pureeing
  • Pressing

To perform these processes, food manufacturers use several pieces of food processing equipment. A continuous oven may be used to cook or bake large quantities of food consistently, such as chicken or bread, so it’s safe to eat and tasty.

A flame grill may also be used when processing meat or vegetables to alter their texture, ensure their safe consumption, and provide a unique smokey flavor, allowing consumers to experience barbecue flavor without having to cook food themselves. Additionally, a food manufacturer may use industrial vacuum stuffers to portion and package foods and ensure their longevity and integrity for consumers. Individual packaging makes it easier to transport some foods and allows them a longer shelf life.

Good Processed Foods

There are many advantages to certain types of food processing. For example, when a food manufacturer vacuum seals meat into individual packages, the product will last longer. It takes much longer for the meat to spoil and makes it easier for the consumer to use one portion of the product without disturbing the rest.

Freezing fruits or vegetables is also useful because it allows them to keep their integrity for a longer period of time without going bad. Natural fruits and vegetables have notoriously short shelf lives and by chopping, freezing, and bagging these foods, consumers have more time to consume them safely without negative effects on their flavor or to their health.

Additionally, canned fruits that are stored in their own juice also preserve the nutrients and flavor associated with the food. In cans, these foods last longer but their flavor is not compromised. Some food manufacturers even add vitamins to canned fruits or other foods as part of the process. These added vitamins increase the nutritional value of the product for the consumer, making it an even healthier snack to grab.

Bad Processed Foods

When foods go through heavy or extensive processing, they may lose their nutritional value. It is important to learn how a food is processed and what’s added to it during this process when determining if it’s a healthy choice or not. Food manufacturers may add sugar, salt, or artificial colors and flavors to foods so they will last longer without refrigeration or so they taste better to consumers.

You can generally identify bad processed foods by examining how the product looks or feels when compared to its original state. For example, if you’re examining frozen chicken breasts and comparing them to chicken nuggets, consider the added ingredients. Chicken breasts may have already been grilled, then frozen, and vacuum sealed.

The chicken nuggets may have artificial flavors and breading added. They may also have been cooked and fried in oil before being frozen in a bag. These processes can add artificial ingredients, fat, and sodium to the product. When foods are ultra-processed and unnatural or unhealthy ingredients are added, it may be better to avoid them or only eat them occasionally.

Things To Consider When Buying Processed Foods

When you head to the grocery store, it’s important to feel confident in your ability to identify good and bad processed foods. If you’re trying to stay away from unhealthy and ultra-processed foods, there are several strategies you can use to identify these products. You should consider:

  • Your preferences: If you’re looking for vegan or vegetarian options, it’s important to review all food labels on processed food to ensure animal products weren’t used in the processing. For example, some food manufacturers may use chicken or beef broth in vegetable soups to enhance flavor. Being aware of the ingredients in a product is crucial to your health and preferences.
  • The ingredients: If you’re trying to stay healthy and away from excessive fat, sodium, or unnatural ingredients, read the label on the package before making a purchase. The ingredients list shows you what was added to the food. It should be simple and straightforward if the food was minimally processed.
  • Your lifestyle: If you only make it to the grocery store once a week or less, you may find frozen vegetables or vacuum-sealed lunch meat conducive to your lifestyle. Food that’s packaged for longevity is considered processed but is often a convenient way to ensure you have time to eat it before it spoils.

It’s easy to stick to the age-old advice of staying away from any food that’s packaged or processed. However, some packaged and processed food doesn’t include artificial or unhealthy ingredients. There are many packaged foods that provide a convenient way to make individual healthy meals while extending shelf life. By identifying good and bad processed foods, you can stay healthy while benefiting from the convenience, nutrition, and flavors of healthy processed food.

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