You Don’t Have to Avoid Processed Foods. Here’s What Matters Instead.


by Papri Spice



Here’s what you should know about “ultra-processed foods”–how they affect your health and what that means for your family.

I wrote a shorter version of this post for my column on WebMD’s Food and Fitness Blog.

Talk about “processed food” can make me twitchy. That’s because so much of it smacks of privilege, particularly the privilege of having the time and resources to make everything from scratch.

So much advice about processed foods is unrealistic, like “avoid anything in a package”. As if! Unless you live on a farm and spend all day in the kitchen, that’s impossible.

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So what are “processed foods”?

Fact is, most foods are processed in some way, including plenty of foods considered healthy staples.

Processing like pasteurization makes food safe, canning make food last longer and locks in nutrients, and milling means you can make bread or cookies without grinding your own flour. Here are other forms of processing:

  • Dehydrating
  • Chopping
  • Mixing
  • Drying
  • Freezing
  • Packaging
  • Fermenting

In other words, that Instagram influencer telling you to “avoid all processed foods” is probably eating a big ol’ plate of them right now!

Here’s what matters more

A more accurate and helpful way to think of foods is the degree of processing they’ve undergone. These categories come from the NOVA food classification:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: They’re in their natural state, or pretty darn close. This includes fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, dried beans and lentils, plain yogurt, raw nuts, pasteurized milk, and frozen meat.
  • Processed foods: These include things that have salt, sugar, or fat added to them like canned beans and vegetables, cheese, canned tuna, canned fruit, and fresh bread.
  • Ultra-processed foods: They’re items that have more ingredients included such as dyes, stabilizers, and emulsifiers, and contain very little intact, unprocessed foods. These include foods like cookies, sugary breakfast cereal, chicken nuggets, soda, chips, and canned soup. They tend to be high in calories, low in nutrients, and marketed heavily.

Wait, what?

You may have noticed there’s a pretty significant leap from “Processed” to “Ultra-processed”. This isn’t a perfect system, and plenty of foods fall between categories. What about a whole grain cereal with just a few ingredients or a lightly-sweetened yogurt? There’s a lot of gray area for sure.

What’s wrong with ultra-processed foods?

Most of us eat some ultra-processed foods. Researchers say nearly 60 percent of the total diet for U.S. adults comes from ultra-processed foods. It’s slightly higher among U.S. kids (about 66 percent).

Trying to rid your diet (and your kids’ diets) of them is an exercise in futility and deprivation. In other words, good luck raising a kid who never touches soda or a gummy fruit snack.

There’s also no need for guilt or shame if you stock some ultra-processed foods in your house (we do!). At the same time, I think it’s important to understand how these foods may be related to health for both grown-ups and kids.

According to studies like these, the more of these ultra-processed foods we eat, the less healthy we become: 

  • One study published in the British Medical Journal found a higher rate of cancer in people who ate more ultra-processed foods.
  • A recent study of French adults concluded there was a higher risk of early death associated with an ultra-processed diet.
  • A study of more than 9,000 British children found that body mass index, fat mass index, weight, and waist circumference were higher among kids, teens, and young adults who ate the most ultra-processed foods.

Why? Ultra-processed foods tend to be higher in fat, salt, and sugar and lower in fiber than less processed ones. Researchers say those factors, along with food additives, chemicals in food packaging, and processing methods like high-temperature heating, could be contributing to health problems.

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What to do about processed foods

I’ve heard calls to avoid ultra-processed foods completely, but I don’t think that’s realistic–and it seems like a recipe for obsession and frustration. Here’s what I recommend instead:

  • Read ingredient lists when shopping. My rule of thumb is the simpler the better. If there are options that don’t contain as many additives and I can afford them, I often choose those.
  • Cook more often. Some convenience foods are a necessity in a busy life. Nothing wrong with frozen foods like breaded fish fillets or frozen ravioli sometimes. But you can also make very simple meals from minimally processed ingredients, like rice and beans or scrambled eggs with a side of fruit.
  • Experiment with homemade versions. My teenager won’t give up his beloved bottled ranch dressing (and he scarfs down more green salads and carrot sticks because of it!). But he happily eats my homemade BBQ sauce, taco seasoning mix, applesauce, and macaroni and cheese. (Here’s a list of what I usually make from scratch–your list may be different, and that’s okay!)
  • Think about balance. After a weekend at Grandma’s or a blow-out birthday sleepover, serve some simpler meals and snacks. Chances are, your kid may be craving them anyway. If your kids had a box of sugar-sweetened cereal last week, lean towards breakfasts like eggs, smoothies, and oatmeal this week. If your kids are having boxed mac-n-cheese for lunch, slice up apples and pears as a side.
  • Cut yourself some slack. What you eat most of the time is what matters. Focus on less processed foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, most often and don’t sweat the occasional hot dog or boxed cookie.

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