Processed Foods: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Processed foods are everywhere we look. They are at the grocery store. They are inside the vending machines at work. They are at the drive-thru. They are likely lurking already inside your own cupboards. Processed foods can be disguised as a healthy food. They can be found in bags, boxes, and in the fresh aisles of the grocery store. Therefore, processed foods are a common staple of the standard American diet. Typically they are to blame for the growing obesity epidemic within our nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million of US adults are obese. Not only is obesity on the rise, but obesity-related conditions include: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are some of the leading causes of death. An abundance of calories consumed from processed foods with the lack of physical activity are the likely culprits of this epidemic. Technically speaking, not all processed foods have a negative effect on our health. We as consumers need be aware of which processed foods to buy and avoid.

What is a processed food?

There are two major types of processed foods. Minimally processed foods are foods which involve a small amount of preparation before the food is packaged for our convenience, but may also require the consumer to cook. These foods usually lack large amounts of added fat, salt, and/or sugar.

Minimally Processed Foods Examples:

  • Canned fruit
  • Yogurt
  • Roasted peanuts

Ready to eat foods are foods which can require minimal cooking after taken out of the package or has already been cooked for your convenience. Ready to eat foods usually have a long list of ingredients containing minimal nutritional value with abundance of salt, fat, and sugar added.

Ready to Eat Foods Examples:

  • Soda
  • Frozen meal entrees
  • Breakfast pastries

Processed foods you can keep on your grocery list:

With that being said, here are some prepackaged foods to making your meals more healthy for you and your family. Many of these foods in this list will surprise you as a processed food.

  • Frozen Vegetables and Fruits—When your produce drawer is empty, frozen vegetables and fruits will do. They are already nutritious and usually require a small amount of cooking to prepare them. However, frozen vegetables containing butter sauces, cheese sauces, and buffalo sauces contain extra fat, salt, and calories.
  • Yogurt—Yogurt can make a great healthy choice if you choose the right types. Plain Greek yogurt or Greek yogurt with fruit added is generally a good choice. Avoid yogurts containing candy, chocolate, and added sugar. You can determine this by reading the ingredient label.
  • Canned Beans—Beans are a powerhouse of nutrition. Canned beans are a good source of fiber and protein. Choose beans containing “low sodium” on the label or rinse them off with cool tap water in a colander before cooking.
  • Ready to Eat Cereal—Choose cereals containing “whole grains” in the ingredient label or providing >4 grams of fiber per serving and less than <5 grams of added sugar per serving. Often times, calcium, folic acid, and Vitamin D are added to ready to eat cereal as well.
  • Canned and Frozen Fish—Canned fish is cheaper than fresh fish. Since it is shelf stable it won’t go bad after a few years. Frozen individually wrapped filets are a nutritious processed food when prepared with herbs and spices.
  • Quinoa—quinoa is an excellent source of protein for vegetarians since it is a complete source of protein and fiber. There are so many recipes you can find on social media (especially Pinterest) using quinoa. Quinoa can be used as a side dish or as a salad.
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