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What Is a “Processed” Food?

Photo: Oxmoor House

What exactly is a processed food? Our Nutrition Editor breaks it down for you.

By definition, a processed food is a food item that has had a series of mechanical or chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it.

Processed foods are those that typically come in a box or bag and contain more than one item on the list of ingredients. For most of us, it’s not realistic to avoid all processed foods. Some are actually very healthy, like precooked whole grains, Greek yogurt, nut butters, organic stock, tofu, frozen vegetables, and unsalted canned beans.

Here’s our test: Look at the ingredient list, and ask yourself if it’s something you could make at home. If it can only be made in a lab or through a chemical process (like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, soy protein isolate, or aspartame), then consider it highly processed. This doesn’t mean you have to make everything yourself—jobs, kids, and everyday life often limit the amount of cooking one can do. But you can still buy versions of ketchup, mayonnaise, and crackers with simple, short ingredient lists. (For example, original Triscuit crackers are made from whole wheat, oil, and salt. That’s it.)

Surprisingly, some of the most highly processed foods are advertised as being the healthiest, including low-fat foods, breakfast cereals, whole-wheat bread, frozen meals, and condiments.

  • Low-fat foods like crackers, cookies, and salad dressings often have added sugar and salt to make up for flavor, and gums or stabilizers are added to make up for texture. Some even have more calories than their higher-fat counterpart.
  • Breakfast cereals: Whether flaked, puffed, shredded, or extruded (think Cheerios), nearly all breakfast cereals are highly processed. Look for those made with whole grains and little to no added sugar, salt, or artificial colors and flavors. Aim for five ingredients or less. Your best bet? Try muesli, a mixture of raw rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit, and seeds.
  • Whole-wheat loaf bread: There’s a reason those perfectly sliced, long rectangular loaves sit on the shelves for weeks at a time without spoiling. They contain artificial preservatives to help maintain freshness. Buy whole-grain bread from your local bakery, where ingredients are kept simple with just flour, water, yeast, oil, and salt.  
  • Many condiments are filled with sodium, sugar, preservatives, gums, stabilizers, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. Whoa! Try seasoning foods first with herbs and spices.