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How Misleading is the Term 'Processed Food'?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We hear over and over that we should cut back on processed foods to have a more healthful diet. On the surface that sounds good but is that really accurate? When you review a time line of How America Grew related to food trends over the last 50 years in America, it is easy to see that processed foods were a central part of the growth. The FDA terms processed food as "any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling."

The last time I checked, staples like bread and soy milk are processed foods since I can't really make a sandwich out of a pile of grain or drink soy beans. The process of turning wheat into bread is about an eight step process while turning soy beans into soy milk takes about 12 steps.

So are these the types of processed foods I should be limiting?

Traditional food processing has been around for generations and served two basic functions. The first was to make food more digestible and the second was to preserve food when it is available for times when it would be scarce. Traditional processing was done by farmers and artisans such as bread makers, cheese makers, distillers and millers. This process produced food and profits for not only a farmer but also the community. Food processing of this type took the best of a main ingredient like wheat and turned it into a nutritious and easily consumed and digested product, such as bread.

Most of the processed food we know today has come from industrial processing practices that took the process out of the hands of local artisans. Many times nutrients are destroyed or altered during processing, and additional additives are included to increase shelf life, alter color, texture or taste. Today's industrial processing typically uses refined sugars, white flour, processed and hydrogenated oils, and additives of synthetic vitamins as much as it uses key ingredients like wheat or beans.

Your overall goal should be to try and decrease the negatively processed foods in favor of the healthy, nutrient-rich options. Here are a few ways you can decrease your negatively processed food choices for your family.
  • Limit canned foods or select lower sodium varieties

  • Limit white bread and pastas that have been made with refined white flour

  • Avoid packaged snack foods like chips and cheese puffs

  • Make your own versions of high fat convenience foods like canned ravioli or spaghetti

  • Make your own baked or grilled dinners instead of selecting frozen fish sticks or frozen dinners

  • Bake things from scratch instead of using packaged cake and cookie mixes

  • Grab your favorite recipe and make your own one-dish meal instead of using meal mixes

  • Select oats or corn meal instead of sugary boxed cereals for breakfast

  • Select turkey breast or hummus spread instead of processed meats

We will most likely always have to select some processed foods as we make meal choices each day. However, we can limit the pre packaged convenience foods and processed and preserved meats we select. We can pick whole grains, low-sodium and trans fat-free choices as much as possible and get back to making what we can for ourselves.

I live a busy life full of work, running kids and volunteering and don't really enjoy cooking. I have found that with a little planning related to menu ideas and making sure I have all the ingredients I will need on hand, my family can have a well-balanced, less-processed meal many nights each week.

Have you been able to decrease your negatively processed foods in favor of more positively processed foods?

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YMWONG22 2/13/2020
Informative article. Report
Good information. Report
Good article Report
Nice dose of realism. Report
Very helpful information. Report
Thanks for a great article! :) Report
We are lucky to live rural, we have a garden and fruit trees, chickens for eggs and goats for milk. Clean eating at its best! We are 25 miles from the nearest grocery store so I also have learned to preserve food and make our bread. Report
Good information Report
This is a very good blog and I learned a lot. I have been slowly changing our diet to a healthy one and it is paying off. I appreciate the tips and thanks for the inspiration to do even better. Report
I read "Eat for Health" and decided to try a plant-based diet. We (hubby and I) eat 'whole foods' or 'clean foods' for many of our meals. It's easy to start with a big baked potato or brown rice and add veggies and beans to make a wholesome, nutritious and delicious meal. Dessert? Melon and berries, baby!
Just FYI, I lost 35+ lbs eating this way and we really enjoy it! Report
Raise my own poultry and eggs and veggies. Grow my own sprouts..

Original state? The organic feed I buy converts into eggs and poultry. The veggies come from seeds that I plant myself and the sprouts are from the organic seeds that I buy. Avocados have a brown wrapper that I just peel off.

I think that the biggest processed food that I buy is organic cold pressed extra extra virgin olive oil.

I do buy snacks and outside food rarely. Report
other than soymilk or tofu. if i don't recognize it as coming from a plant it doesn't go home with me. Report
I am really enjoying the transition to more healthy, less processed whole foods. I try to be realistic about the choices I make, keeping in mind cost, time, and nutrition. In a perfect world I'd eat all fresh veggies,and fruit but since my husband doesn't like them much, I need to be careful about buying too much and having it go to waste. Frozen vegetables have really helped me out with that. I can prepare a small portion and keep the rest in the freezer for another time.

cooking with new whole grains like barley and quinoa has been fun. I like to cook ahead and potion out what I need for the week or freeze some of it.

Adding nuts, seeds and nut butters to my diet has been great! I just love knowing the proper portions and working them into my diet. In the past when I dieted they were always off limits, now I get to enjoy them on a dail basis.

Wow!! I never paid attention to processed food and what they are. I use them a lot. I am not a great cook, and my whole life is two kinds of recipes. The ones that say "Just add water" or "microwave it" . My income doesnt grant me the monies to buy fresh foods, but I will certainly be paying more attention to what we eat now. I guess I am just going to have to buy me a "from scratch cookbook". Hey!! Maybe I can get hubby to get me the mixer I wanted. Tx for the blogs...
B. Report
I really try to limit heavily processed foods in our house. It is hard with so many choices and most of them are not great choices. I reach for more organics and really try to read ingredients including the organic. I watch my sodium intake as well and even organics can carry a lot of sodium. I like to have canned soups on hand for REALLY busy days or when we are sick. I have found a good selection of Health Valley No Salt Added that I really like. In the last few months I have increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in the house. We are still using some canned goods, but not nearly as much as we used to. I do make a lot of things from scratch too, but would like to do even more. It is important to have a balance and to make these changes gradually so I will stick with it. I really respect people who eat only minimally processed foods. It is hard with so many easy variations that are ready but heavily processed. Report
When I lived in America, I found it difficult to get away from processed foods. In other parts of the world, a larger percentage of the diet comes from whole foods, and I think it's the way to go. I do sometimes enjoy pasta, bread, milk or cheese, but my diet is mainly fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and I think it's a healthier way to eat. Report
I am confused! I know that canned vegetables have way too much sodium so I always buy the ones canned with NO SALT. But I have also learned that nutrition wise, there is not a whole lot of difference between the fresh, frozen and canned. Who is right???
I am really a fresh vegetable freak and came home today with butternut squash, acorn squash, brussel sprouts, kale, red peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, and a bag of shredded cabbage to make my husband's coleslaw. Vegetable drawer already contains romaine, spring mix, celery and lots of other salad makings. And lots of fruits. But I still keep canned ones on hand.
All of my cooking is done from scratch and has been for the 54 years I've been married. And yes, I worked full time, raised 3 kids, canned and froze foods, and led a very busy life and still do today. Report
Thanks for distinguishing between processed foods that are made more nutritious or more digestible (or in some cases, safer!) because of the processing (bread, cheese, milk) and the processed foods that aren't so good for your health (twinkies, velveeta, soda). For those of you who don't like to cook, give it some time, the more you do it, the better you will get and the more you will enjoy cooking. It saves money, is better for your health and your waistline, and for me, is a huge source of satisfaction. Report
This has become a much larger topic in our household as of late since the price of groceries has gone up. We are in the process of collecting recipes to make as much of our own items as possible -- which includes bread, ketchup and ranch dressing (we have three children and these are staples)! Have you ever looked at a bottle of ketchup -- the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup -- no wonder kids like it so much. We have never been into pre-packaged dinners or meals so this last bit is too make our diet even healthier. I have to say my one holdout may be cold cereal -- I like oatmeal -- but I also like my Golden Grahams! We figure that the more processes foods we cut out, the healthy all of us will be. Thanks for this article. Report
2 things I have done is: First, buy a cook book full of from scratch recipes. The other day I made home made brownies, they were great and I knew exactly what was in them. Second I bought a Vacuum Sealer and I pre-make most of my meal, vac-u-seal them and put them in the freezer. It is like having my own frozen "TV Dinner” but without all the chemicals. I put my menu together every Sunday and the vacuumed food lasts for a very long time. Report
Buyer beware; buyer be educated. Report
I try my best to shop the "outside" of the grocery store. Fresh fruits and veggies, meat counter, dairy products, and limited frozen items. I only make short forays into the aisles, quick trip for a whole grain bread, peanut butter, coffee, and the like. I also make sure I read the ingredients, if the ingredients are over processed, it goes back on the shelf. Report
I can or freeze 90% of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. That alone has made a big difference in the overall health of my family. I also only buy whole wheat or 5-Grain Bread. Most of our food is made from scratch. I do keep Weight Watcher and Lean cuisine meals in the freezer to take to work, as I work thirds. Report
Almost 4 months ago, I stopped eating 90% of the "negatively" processed foods and so far, I've lost about 12 lbs. I was eating frozen dinners every day (sometimes twice a day). Lean Cuisines and Health Choice frozen meals aren't s lean or healthy as we'd like to think! The loads of salt and preservatives defeat the purpose of the portion control these meals offer. Report
The Food Industry is the largest money making venture in the world.

I've decided to do as much as I can to see to it that they get less of mine!

´¨¨)) -:¦:-
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((¸¸.•´ ..•´ -:¦:- Terri
-:¦:- ((¸¸.•´*

I have read Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food." Since reading it, I've been much more aware of "food-like substances." I try to limit processed foods as much as I can. Still, it's a balance. Sometimes convenience wins out. Report
I refuse to eat canned foods or prepared processed foods (such as frozen dinners), and anything with high fructose corn syrup or transfats. They don't even taste good so why would I want to anyway?! It's a waste of precious calories if you ask me. I'd rather use mine to eat fresh ingredients that are nutritious and full of flavour. Report
I do what I can, I really watch the sodium and what is put into "processed" foods. Report
I intend to continue to use processed foods as long as I deem them healthy and nutritious. I am not going to let the media and the tree huggers dictate what is healthy. Report
Because we are market gardeners and grow all of our veges we are able to eat healthy every day. When purchasing meat, I always try to buy local & fresh cuts of meat. We are lucky to live in an area where there are a lot of locals who home kill lamb, pork and beef which means we don't reley on the supermarket for all our meat.
When we have an abundance of veges I make all our sauces, relishes, chutneys & jams. We sell a lot of these through our small shop where we sell our veges & herbs, and I always have a supply at home for us & friends to enjoy.
I would absolutely hate to rely on buying all our produce to eat as I would be in the dark as to how much spray etc had been used on the product.
We have just brought 2 beautiful hens who lay our eggs 6 out of 7 days,
and wander around our very large garden giving us fertalizer as well.
I am saving to buy a pasta maker so I can produce our healthy pastas as well. I do have a bread maker but cheat by going to the supermarket to purchase a 7 grain bread which is delicious, healthy & takes no time to cook.
I believe we all do the best we can, it is only knowledge about foods that change the way we do things, we all strive to make healthy choices for us & our families. Report
You do the best you can with what you have. If we could all get fresh, natural foods all the time, we wouldn't want the store-bought substitutes. But we need to learn how to find quality processed foods - and blend it with less processed, homemade foods whenever possible. Balance and moderation win again. Report
Processed?? I use supplements that are whole food concentrates, they are processed but have more nutrition than most food we purchase in the market. A very good book to read about all this is IN DEFENSE OF FOOD by Michael Pollan--fantastic book and says all I wish others would realize about our food and eating habits. Report
I will continue to use my motto of everything goes in normal amounts. Report
I've never used much in the processed foods line; too expensive, and they mostly don't taste like much. When I read the ingredients,and only 3 are in English, it's enough to make my hair stand on end. I eat so low on the food chain, it's really funny, but it works. Report
That term isn't misleading.

I've never heard the term used to mean not to eat any bread. In fact, almost every time I've heard the term used, it has context included in to explain that it means foods that have been processed to the point that they are unhealthy. Whole grain is processed, but I've never heard the term used to refer to not eating whole grain and I doubt anybody could make that mistake because in the next sentence people usually give examples of whole grain bread versus white bread.

Canned fruits and vegetables are bad for you not just because of sodium by the way.

I mean, some of them are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, but they'd be bad for you even if that wasn't the case.

What most people don't know about canned foods is that many companies that can fruits and vegetables REMOVE VITAMINS from these canned foods to sell seperately.

Go pick up a can of mandarin oranges next time you're in the grocery store. Check to see if you get more than 4% of your daily allowance of vitamin C. Too often, the answer is that you don't. Take out the vitamins and you are left with filler. Calorie rich, nutrient poor foods.

Other processed foods like prepared meals just take whatever price saving shortcuts that they can.

What's really important is to actually understand for yourself the underlying reasons behind any diet or nutrition advice and think for yourself instead of relying on others. Report
Really interesting article. It kinda puts a new light into some of the foods that I thought were healthy and good for me because they said 100% whole grain and all that jazz. I guess the moral of the story is, maybe it's best to just cook for oneself. Report
Great information thanks for posting it. Report
I believe processed foods have brought about our epedemic of obesity and many of our illnesses and diseases. We have gotten away from cooking naturally and from scratch. I grew up on a farm and was fortunate to have eaten chemically free chicken, beef, pork and vegetables. I know as our society is more urbanized this lifestyle is hard to obtain. Our family has moved many times across the country but I've always tried to have a garden which I then freeze any extra vegetable , can my own tomatoe sauces,jams, fruit. I also dry or freeze fresh herbs. When it came to meats I tried to find Organic meat markets or farmers you raised chemical free livestock. We need to get back to the basics of cooking and preserving .It really isn't that difficult. The time and effort are worth it. Our health and life our worth it. Don't you agree? Report
I rarely cook. Although I hate the extra packaging, I use healthy frozen meals and entrees and soy-enriched cereal bars every day. The portion control and nutrition panels are essential for my healthy eating program. I want to know I'm getting good nutritional essentials that have been scientifically tested. Cooking from scratch leaves you wondering what vitamins have been destroyed, and how much fat that beef really contained. (I do microwave skinless, boneless chicken breasts fairly often.) Report
Thank you for bringing this up. I was asked the other day What are processed foods and the answer I gave wasn't real clear. Now I know. I have been doing the cooking lately and we try to keep it "real". When we use canned veggies we run them under water to rinse off some of the extra sodium they get from processing. Report
It's challenging. I eat raw, vegetarian, as much as possible (raw, organic fruits and veggies; a few raw nuts; raw milk.) We buy organic, whole grains (which are processed, although minimally,) a small amount of raw cheese, natural greek yogurt, and organic, cold-pressed oils. It's hard to not have a few frozen goods or canned soups on hand, however. We just buy the brands we trust, which have the fewest ingredients. Nothing icky! Report
This is one that I'm having a hard time with. I know how much better fresh foods are, taste-wise and nutritionally, but I'm single and I really don't care for cooking for one a lot of the time...so I resort to the easy solution: boxed single serve meals. Mostly I've been using them for lunches. I mostly hate leftovers and I have a tiny apartment freezer so freezing portions is out of the question. So...I cook...and I'm frustrated. There are nights when the pudding cup wins and that's what ends up being for dinner. Report
I always try to use fresh fruit and vegetables for everything I prepare. I don't like frozen foods, so don't eat them.Tinned goods I do use on occassion, but opt for the low salt versions. Report
In the winter my father worked as a butcher at a busy Meat Market, and he'd NEVER eat "lunch meat." He'd always tell us, "If you saw what when in there, you wouldn't eat it....everything but the OINK." Report
I am doing pretty good in each department except for canned food. I still use too much of canned tuna and salmon. Once in a while I use a can of soup to make the soup base. So guilty as charged. Other than that, we use mostly real food. Nothing taste better than fresh, real food. Report
I love cooking and use fresh ingredients as it taste so much better and I found out that it doesn't take longer time to cook than a frozen meal or a meal from a bag. In average I spend 20 - 30 minutes to cook a dinner from Scratch. Report
I grew up with a vegetarian mom who was also a nutritionist... why that didn't stick with me I don't know. What did stick with me though, is my ingrained preference for REAL foods over heavily processed ones. Processing is necessary in most cases, but like the article says, choose wisely. I happen to love the taste of Stevia or Raw Sugar over the bleached white stuff. Get a $25 bread machine from Walmart for those times you feel like eating something other than plain grain bread. For the most part, I've been able to find (with more frequency now) the healthier versions of my favorites foods growing up. Whole GRAIN -vs- whole wheat, steel cut oats are chewier like cous cous, and have more natural vitamins than flattened oats. Whole, living or flash frozen foods are better than dehydrated or canned. Go for all natural whenever possible, organic if you can afford it and stay away from anything that's bleached like white flour, white sugar, white rice and so on... (not all white rice is bleached, some is polished, wild rice is actually healthy.) Report
for me - it's pretty much reading labels and if the product has ingredients that I can't find elsewhere in the grocery store.. I don't buy it...

I love to cook, but I don't want to cook every single night -I hate doing dishes -so I do some form of batch preparation a few nights a week.... Report
Oh yeah, I cut them and don't want them back. I do eat mix grain or whole wheat bread, low fat cheese and seldom soy milk but otherwise i cook everything from scratch! Report
When I think about limiting processed foods I think about the overly processed foods. I try to avoid frozen meals...though some days (once in a blue moon) I will do one for dinner. I prefer to make my own lasagna or meatloaf from scratch. When I make my lasagna I skip the traditional noodles and go for whole wheat pasta. I also skip white bread I only buy whole wheat. I thought about making my own using whole wheat flour so I can avoid the preservatives but I find it is so time consuming and costs so much more that I can't always do that. But I do make homemade breads for large family meals. I do avoid the canned vegetables and fruits. So really, I just try to stay as close to the original state of the foods when I purchase. Report
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