What is 'Processed Food'? Why This Ambiguous Term Leaves Consumers in the Dark
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the term 'processed food'? Maybe it’s that greasy Chinese takeout spot down the block, or the entire frozen pizza section at the grocery store. But we’re willing to bet you didn’t think of those pre-sliced organic mangos from Whole Foods, or that triple-washed bag of fresh spinach. In truth — they’re all, technically, "processed".
In recent years, "processed food" has become synonymous with "unhealthy food", and processing has become an infamous black mark to health-conscious consumers. But despite widespread backlash against "processing", most people still struggle to define the term. And knowing the difference between healthy and harmful processing will help you shop smart and make the most informed choices when it comes to the foods you eat.
What is Processed Food?
"Processed food" means food that has been altered in some way during its preparation. So unless you’re eating "farm-to-mouth" (farm-to-table’s more radical cousin 😉), everything you eat, once it’s cooked or prepared, even at home, is technically "processed." Consult the USDA website, and you’ll find a laundry list of "processing" activities that includes everything from basic washing, chopping and drying, to more harmful modifications, like adding chemicals and preservatives.
Think of processing as a spectrum, rather than as a binary classification: Foods on the left of the spectrum are more natural and nutritious; the farther right you move, the more synthetic and unhealthy they get. Here’s a breakdown:
- Minimally processed foods are those that have only been physically changed — for example, via bagging, washing, cutting, canning or freezing. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables fall into this category - and often come in preservative-free forms. A good rule of thumb? Ask yourself, "Could I do this at home?" If the answer is yes, it’s probably minimally processed – and likely perfectly healthy!
- Further right on the spectrum are foods with oils, sugars, or salts added for flavor or texture. Some examples: simple breads, cheese, tofu, yogurt, jarred pasta sauces, and salad dressings. These foods have been altered, but not necessarily in a way that’s bad for you. Still, if you’re looking for a less processed choice, check the labels to compare ingredient content (see below for the most common red-flag ingredients), or make a DIY option from scratch when possible.
- Deli meats or cheeses, chips, crackers, and packaged pastries comprise the next tier of processed foods. Food companies pump them with sodium, sugar, fat, and preservatives to make you crave them and keep you coming back for more. So don't be too hard on yourself the next time you find yourself elbow-deep in a bag of potato chips.
- Finally, there’s the ultra-processed foods: frozen pizzas and chicken nuggets, french fries, soda, and sweetened cereals, just to name a few. These contain tons of artificial ingredients. Refer back to that first rule of thumb here: Could you recreate this yourself at home? Or would you need a lab and a half dozen chemicals to do it?
It’s buyer beware when it comes to navigating the minefield of processed foods. Here are three tips that can help steer you clear of the bad stuff:
1. Read Labels
Below you’ll find the most common harmful ingredients in highly processed foods. While this list is long, it’s not exhaustive. So when in doubt, consider the source. Apples come from trees – but can you quickly trace where acesulfame potassium comes from? If it’s not from nature (or you find yourself tongue-tied while reading the ingredients), walk away.
- High fructose corn syrup: Brands like high-fructose corn syrup because it’s a cheaper alternative to cane sugar. You’ll find it in soda, juice, candy, breakfast cereals and snacks, among many other foods. Overconsumption of high fructose corn syrup can cause obesity and type 2 diabetes.
- Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame potassium are all artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, for example, is almost 200 times sweeter than cane sugar, so brands save themselves money by using way less than they would have to with its natural counterpart. There have been a number of conflicting studies on the harmful effects of artificial sweeteners, with many linking them to seizures, depression, and cancers. Your best bet - as with sugar and other sweeteners - is to limit your intake.
- Sodium nitrite: This is a preservative typically used in processed meats. It prevents bacterial growth, while adding a salty flavor. It can increase your risk of heart disease and damage blood vessels.
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): BHA and BHT are common synthetic preservatives that keep food color and flavor from changing. They’re often found in cereals, gum, fast food, drink mixes, shortening, and snack foods. They’ve been linked to increased risk of cancer.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): The infamous flavor enhancer typically found in fast food, processed meats, and instant noodles is branded incredibly harmful by some, and not-all-that-bad by others. Because of the high sodium content in MSG, we suggest you limit it when you can.
- Hydrogenated oil: Hydrogenated oil contains a high amount of trans fats, which greatly increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
- Artificial food coloring: The most harmful artificial food colorings are Yellow #5 and #6, Blue #1 and Blue #2, Reds, and Green #3. They’re believed to cause everything from hyperactivity in kids to chromosomal damage. Many of these dyes are already banned in some European countries. In the US, the FDA tried and failed to have Red #3 banned.
2. Beware of Sneaky Marketing
Ultra-processed foods are often labeled as "healthy" or "low-fat" — sometimes to distract from their unhealthy ingredients. Other times, they may highlight a healthy ingredient, like whole grain – but fail to mention other artificial ingredients. When in doubt, just refer back to the ingredient list. Look for short lists with ingredients you can readily recognize, and that you would find in your own home kitchen.
For example, here's the ingredient list for Mosaic's Yellow Dal Curry:
It's ultra-clean label and free of anything shady or processed. Just good, whole foods that are available in any grocery store.
3. Work Smarter — Not Harder — For Your Food
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a headache. Remember that frozen vegetables have the same nutrition as fresh ones – so there’s no detriment to your health. Plus, you won’t risk wasting produce that goes bad before you can use it. Those are just two of the many reasons why we love freezing our food.
While you should stay away from typical TV dinners, which are heavily processed with loads of preservatives, there is a better alternative to eat conveniently - without sacrificing your health. Frozen meals from Mosaic are made with minimally processed food that is real and all-natural — and we never add artificial ingredients or preservatives. Why? The frozen food industry has been dominated by overly processed players for far too long. It’s about time we found a way to save time, reduce waste - and still eat 100% good, natural food.