Processed food

Living Well & Understanding the Body:

What is Processed

Margaux Thieme-Burdette September 21, 2019

The phrase “processed food” has been getting a lot of attention, as we’re increasingly encouraged to avoid them. They are found in the form of microwave dinners, candy bars, chips, and soda, but canned beans, yogurt, olive oil, and frozen vegetables are also examples of processed foods. They can be complete meals, snacks, or time-saving ingredients we use to cook our own meals.

To process a food means to alter it from its natural state. Even cutting up a pineapple and cooking rice are examples of processing that we do at home. 

On a larger scale, when we say  “processed foods” we are referring to ready-to-eat, packaged products that have been manipulated through processes like pasteurization or heat, or by adding natural or synthetic ingredients for flavor, color, texture, or preservation.

Many types of processing can also strip foods of their vitamins and minerals, which is why manufacturers will often add them back in, fortifying packaged foods with iron, magnesium, B vitamins, vitamin D, and other nutrients.

As a rule of thumb, the more ingredients you see on the label, the further that food is from its natural state. More often than not, a product with a laundry list of ingredients will:

  • lack many of the original nutrients
  • be highly caloric
  • contain an alarming amount of sodium and sugar
  • include additives and other ingredients that can be harmful to your health

Studies have demonstrated a link between processed foods and diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. We are also coming to understand that these foods may disrupt the balance between good and bad bacteria in the gut microbiome, which can impact everything from mood to autoimmune disease.

Using packaged foods once in awhile can help us manage our busy lives, but choosing whole and minimally processed foods is always optimal.

Here are a few tips to minimize the role of processed foods in your diet:

  • At the grocery store, stick to the perimeter where the fresh produce is—if you don’t see those enticing, colorful packages of cookies and crackers, you won’t be tempted to buy them.
  • Plan ahead! Prep meals for the week so that you are not caught off guard without time to cook and end up reaching for a frozen meal.
  • Do not keep snacks at home. You can’t eat what you don’t have.
  • Visit your local farmer’s market. Make food an adventure. You will be able to find beautiful, in-season produce that will never reach the grocery store shelves and talk with your farmers about how their fruits and veggies are grown. Farmer’s market produce is also brought straight from the farm—a fresher and more nutrient-dense option than grocery store produce.

All that being said, many people lack the access and resources needed to incorporate whole foods into their diets on a daily basis. Food security and affordability are ongoing issues that many organizations (such as the Food Tank) are working to address through food policy change, food stamp incentive programs, school garden programs, urban farming and community gardens, food waste recovery and redistribution, and more. 


  1. Article Sources and Footnotes
    1. Processed Foods and Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

    2. What do processed foods do to your body? Here’s what 3 new studies found. (May 2019). Advisory Board.

    3. Naidoo, Uma. (March 2019). Gut Feelings: How Food Affects Your Mood. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.