What is Considered Processed Food?
If you are like most people, you likely hear that processed foods are bad for you on a regular basis. While this can be true, it all depends on what are considered processed foods. There are many different definitions of this term, and not all processed foods on all lists are going to be unhealthy.
Getting a good idea of what is considered to be a processed food is a significant first step in following an overall healthy diet. To start with, let’s look at a couple of different ways to define the term “processed food”.
Strict Definition of Processed Foods
Some people use a very strict definition when discussing processed foods and list anything that is not “as is” naturally. For example, canned beans would be processed because they typically come pre-washed and cut for easier use. Most types of raw meat would not be processed because you can go out into nature, hunt an animal and prepare the meat yourself. Of course, according to the strict definition, cooking the meat would be a form of processing so you’ll have to keep that in mind.
Traditional Definition of Processed Foods
When most people are talking about processed foods, they aren’t quite as strict. Canned beans that don’t have any salt or sugar added, for example, aren’t often on the list of processed foods. Of course, cooked meat (without breading or other additives) is also going to be perfectly acceptable for most people. Some types of oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, and nut oils aren’t typically seen as processed because the oil is gathered using a simple cold-press and not any complex chemical extraction methods that are used for vegetable oils.
Levels of Processing
Unless you want to do your farming, hunting, and fishing, you are not going to be able to avoid all forms of processing very easily. This is why most people will want to learn how to minimize the processing that their food goes through instead. This is a very healthy way to choose your foods and is much easier than taking a strict literalist understanding of what is considered a processed food.
The “rule of thumb” for determining how processed something is would be to look directly at the ingredient list. The shorter the list, the less processing it has gone through. Anything that is pre-made or boxed up at the store is going to have a relatively long list of ingredients, which means it had passed through a lot of processing before you purchased it. Another thing to watch for on the ingredient list is anything that isn’t natural. Most foods today contain lots of chemicals that are not found in food naturally, and they should be avoided whenever possible.
The following categories can often be somewhat confusing until you become more familiar with identifying processed items. Take a moment to learn what to look for and how to avoid overly processed foods.
Oils are an essential component in many meals and are also one of the most misunderstood options in the supermarket. Many people mistakenly think that all oils are bad for them, simply because they are high in fat. When choosing an oil, many believe that vegetable oils are healthier because they are made from vegetables. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Vegetable oils are extremely processed, and should be avoided whenever possible. More natural oils would include avocado oil, nut oil, and olive oil.
Products Labeled Low-Fat
When people see the “low-fat” or “fat-free” labels on foods, they often think that they are healthy. While some low-fat foods can be completely natural, it is not usually the case. Food manufacturers today are removing the fat from many foods and replacing it with sugar or other unhealthy ingredients to aid with marketing. The reality is, the full-fat versions of these foods are much less processed and can be far healthier when enjoyed in moderation.
Another confusing area of the supermarket is the grains. When looking for bread, buns, rice and other grains people often assume that they are looking at healthy items. The fact is, all grains have to go through processing in order to get to your table. While “whole grain” foods are processed less, they are still high-carb additions that almost always have extra sugars and other unhealthy options added to them. Eliminating (or at least minimizing) grains from your diet is typically a good idea. Get your carbs from natural sources such as fruits, tubers, and vegetables.
One last tip to help avoid processed foods is to avoid any “convenient” foods. Instant potatoes typically have vegetable oils in them as part of the flavoring, instant oatmeal is almost always filled with sugar, pre-made meal bars or energy bars are going to be filled with a variety of different ingredients you do not want to consume. To put it simply, anything indicated as instant on the label should let you know to avoid that product.
Your Definition of Processed Foods
When planning out your daily diet, it is important to decide how much processed food you will consume. The less you consume, the better you will feel. Starting out by eliminating the foods that are the most processed is a great first step and from there you can continue to cut out certain items and replace them with healthy alternatives. Having your own list of processed foods to enjoy is a great way to improve your overall health and make shopping easier.