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, and 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:
All that being said, it’s important to note that many people lack the access and resources needed to incorporate whole foods into their diets on a daily basis. Food insecurity is an ongoing issue that many passionate nonprofits are working to address through food stamp incentive programs, food policy change, school garden programs, urban farming and community gardens, food waste recovery and redistribution, and more.
Processed Foods and Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
What do processed foods do to your body? Here’s what 3 new studies found. (May 2019). Advisory Board.
Naidoo, Uma. (March 2019). Gut Feelings: How Food Affects Your Mood. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.