Processed Foods: What to Choose for Healthy Eating

Processed foods are some of the most maligned consumption items on store shelves today and many for a good cause. Anyone who spends any time reading product nutrition labels may shudder at what some people consume regularly. 

You may have heard that you should stick to the grocery store’s perimeter when shopping, as that is where you will find the most nutritious items. In theory, that is correct. The produce, dairy and meat aisles are where fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, cheese, fish, poultry, and beef are found. 

However, you can also find processed frozen foods, baked goods, packaged luncheon meat, and sugar-laden yogurt, among other things. Just because an item is located around the store’s perimeter does not make it healthy. There are also many good food options located up and down the grocery aisles, if you know how and where to look. 

What are processed foods?

Processed food is any item that has been altered in some manner before it arrives at the grocery store. Processing can occur in many ways some being simple and others extremely complex. 

The most basic methods of processing food include:

  • Canning/jarring
  • Juicing
  • Freezing
  • Dehydrating

In these methods, there is minimal alteration of the food item. Fresh fruit and vegetables are often canned, frozen, or put in jars whole or cut up. Dehydrating removes the water from food to extend its shelf life.The dehydration process can occur in the sun, by air, in the oven, or with electric dehydrators. Frequently dehydrated foods include fruits, vegetables, cooked lean meats (jerky), herbs, and sauces.

More complex food processing methods include:

  • Baking
  • Stewing
  • Boiling
  • Sauteing
  • Roasting
  • Frying
  • Steaming
  • Grilling 
  • Tempering 

With these methods the ingredients are first prepped, washed, cut, and readied for the cooking process. The food is cooled and packaged once cooked by whatever method is used. Some foods require preservatives to keep them from spoiling. Shelf-stable foods are typically boxed up for shipment. Other foods require refrigeration or freezing and may be at a greater risk of spoiling or bacterial growth if they sit out too long or thaw and are refrozen repeatedly. 

Why Some Processed Foods Are Bad for Health

The mere mention of “processed” conjures up complicated cooking steps giant mixing vats, grinders, conveyor belts and multiple actions before the food is packaged and sent to your store. Yes, foods prepared like this are more likely to be bad for your health. Manufacturers use flashy packaging, alluring commercials and ads, coupons, and buy-one-get-one (BOGO) gimmicks to lure you in. They know how addictive their packaged and processed foods can be. 

Convenience is the key ingredient here as too many people in the US have limited time to shop and prepare healthy meals. It is easy to determine which processed foods are the best choice by spending a few extra minutes at the store reading labels. 

Another concern is genetically modified foods. Non-GMO, organic and pesticide-free foods are safer for consumption. 

Can you name every ingredient listed, or do some sound like complicated chemicals? 

Are items such as sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate, guar gum, food colorings, sodium benzoate, carrageenan, and high-fructose corn syrup listed?

Is the ingredient list a mile long, or does it show only a few whole food items? 

For example, does that bag of frozen vegetables list peas, carrots, and green beans, or does it also have modified food starch, natural flavors (what are they?), salt, xanthan gum, whey powder, and other ingredients? If you want vegetables with cheese sauce, buy plain frozen vegetables, hand shred a block of your favorite cheese, and melt it on top. 

Can the food be healthy, but the packaging be a problem?

Yes, some forms of packaging, such as cans and other packaging that uses bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor, can be dangerous. If a can does not say BPA-free, it likely is not. 

Here are some of the reasons why many processed foods are bad for you:

  • Can be high in sugar 

Companies add sugar to processed foods for sweetness, shelf-life extension, and to aid in browning capability, color, texture, and body of the food. That is why some foods not considered sweet have sugar in their ingredient list. Many gluten-free foods often have sugar as a primary ingredient.

Processed foods containing added sugar and, worse – high fructose corn syrup – alter metabolism and can increase the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Health conditions like these can also worsen due to hormonal imbalances like HGH deficiency. HGH therapy can help with that issue. Is HGH expensive? Learn more about HGH and how to get it prescribed online.

  • Full of artificial ingredients and unnecessary additives

Product labels that include artificial colors and flavors, chemical names, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners can lead to significant health concerns, especially when consumed regularly.

  • High in calories

Processed foods can significantly increase the amount of calories consumed. Because they contain chemicals that stimulate “feel-good” sensors in brain areas associated with dopamine, we want to consume more. It is difficult to stop at one potato chip or cookie. That will not satisfy hunger or cravings. However, healthier options often yield far fewer calories for significantly more significant portions. 

  • Digest quicker

The body digests processed foods faster than whole, unprocessed foods, causing us to feel hungry sooner. We burn fewer calories to process these foods, causing increased weight gain. 

  • Contain excess sodium

Many processed foods are extremely high in sodium, which can increase high blood pressure, bone calcium loss, heart disease, and stroke risks. Processed and packaged deli meats are often high in sodium. Always check the labels and limit the consumption of these products.

  • High in refined carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed grains that are not nutrient-dense like whole grains. While processing these grains extends shelf life, crucial nutrients are removed. Products such as white bread, rolls, bagels, buns, pizza dough, white rice, pancakes, waffles, crackers, pretzels, baked goods, and some cereals are refined carbs that can spike blood sugar levels.

  • High in trans fat

Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are full of trans fat to extend the shelf life of processed foods. However, trans fats increase the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. 

While not all types of fat are as bad as trans fat, they still add extra calories that can contribute to weight gain, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • Lack of nutritional value

Processing removes many of the vitamins, fiber, and nutrients in food. Some companies add these back in by “fortifying” their foods. It is always better to get these nutrients in their natural form.

Best Types of Processed Foods

Minimally processed foods are the best types you can buy. The slightest alteration in the appearance of the food, the better. For example, flash-freezing rapidly freezes food to help it achieve ice crystal formation faster, reducing internal cell structure damage to the food. Frozen food companies use flash freezing to reduce moisture loss in food. 

One of the most common minimally processed foods is bagged salad greens. These foods are often washed multiple times, placed in bags or plastic containers, and are ready to eat. Another option is precut fruit cups and chopped vegetables, such as squash or broccoli. The food is still natural; its use has just been simplified. 

  • Ready to eat vegetables and fruit 

Found in the produce aisle, prewashed, precut, packaged fruit and vegetables are convenient and healthy processed food options. 

  • Canned beans

Because they are quick to prepare and high in protein and fiber, canned beans are an excellent processed food to add to your diet. Look for products with the lowest sodium content and rinse them well before use. Refried beans often contain added ingredients, so check the labels carefully. Canned beans can be added to salads, chili, and other dishes. *One warning – always look for food cans of any type that say BPA-free. 

  • Pickled vegetables

Pickles, kimchi, and other pickled vegetables provide a fiber and probiotic-rich addition to your diet. Avoid excess sugar and salt; look for products with limited and healthy ingredients. 

  • Dried spices and herbs

Buying fresh herbs can get expensive, and they do not last long. Growing them in organic soil at home is an alternative. Buying jarred herbs and spices is an excellent option, especially when you choose organic. However, be on the lookout for spice blends and seasoning mixes with added sugar, salt, and chemicals. 

  • Frozen veggies and berries

Vegetables and fruits are frozen at the peak of freshness and are often fresher to use than you can find in your produce department. Buying organic frozen produce is often more affordable than fresh, especially if you stock up during sales. You can also find products such as cauliflower rice and spiralized vegetable noodles to help cut back on refined carbs. 

  • Olive and other oils

Extra virgin olive, coconut, and avocado oils are excellent examples of healthy processed food items. Buy olive oil in dark glass jars and avoid low-priced brands as they are typically lower in quality. 

  • Whole grain pasta, bread, and cereals

From pasta to cereal to bread, choosing whole grains without added sugar, salt, and chemical ingredients is the best option.

  • Canned fish

Convenient and affordable, fish in cans or pouches can provide healthy and quick mealtime options. Canned tuna may be high in mercury, so look for brands that provide safer alternatives. 

  • Nuts and seeds and their butter

Buying raw, organic nuts and seeds or raw nut and seed butter can help add heart-healthy fat and protein to your daily diet. Bulk shopping can help save money. Avoid roasted nuts and seeds, as they can spoil quickly. Roasting at home brings out more flavor, and you can switch things up with different seasonings. Avoid jars of nut butter with anything added other than a small amount of salt. There is no reason to add any oil or sugar to nut butter. 

  • Dried fruits

A convenient way to access fruit in the off-season or for use in some recipes, dried fruit is often made through dehydration. While it is best to do it yourself at home, these products are healthy to buy without added oils, flour, sulfites, or sugars. Just remember to check portion sizes, as they add a lot of calories to your diet. Dried fruit can help with digestion thanks to their higher fiber content.

  • Gluten-free grains, pasta, and oats

Create fabulous side dishes with wild rice, amaranth, quinoa, and other “single-ingredient grains.” Gluten-free pasta has wide varieties today, including chickpeas, quinoa, beans, lentils, rice, hearts of palm, and corn. Avoid products with seasoning packets or added ingredients containing excess sugar, sodium, or other chemicals and flavors. Not all oats are gluten-free, so double-check their labels for certification. Also, buying organic corn pasta is recommended, with so many corn products made from genetically modified corn.

  • Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a processed food (you are not going to eat a raw cacao bean) that can provide many health benefits. Look for high-quality, organic, fair-trade chocolate that does not include a lot of other additives, such as soy lecithin, natural or artificial flavors, and food dyes. 

  • Milk

All types of milk are processed unless you are on a farm and drink it from the source. Plant-based milk varieties are excellent options for those not consuming dairy; just be vigilant and read the labels. Opt for products without added sugar and many ingredients, such as gums and preservatives. Some nut milks are only nuts and water, which is the best choice. 

  • Tomatoes and tomato paste

Convenient recipe options: canned, boxed, or jarred tomatoes come chopped, diced, stewed, and as sauces or pastes. Check for BPA-free listing and avoid additives other than extra virgin olive oil and spices. 


According to a national poll conducted by the University of Michigan on healthy aging, approximately 13 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 are addicted to processed foods. Women and older adults who are overweight, lonely, or not healthy are most likely to consume more processed foods. 

People who responded that their health was fair or poor were more than twice as likely to report processed food addiction than those with good, very good, or excellent health. Twenty-four percent reported at least one highly intense processed food craving a week. 

Food addiction is a problem because the brain responds strongly to highly processed foods, especially those with high fat, sugar, starch, and salt. After all, most people cannot eat just one potato chip. 

Increased processed food consumption leads to a higher risk for conditions such as:

  • Cancer (especially ovarian and brain)
  • Heart disease death
  • Dementia
  • Type 2 diabetes 

Learning to read product labels and how to check for sodium, trans fat, and carbohydrate levels can help you make better choices. Avoid items with lengthy ingredient lists, chemical names, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, and other problematic items. Even “natural flavors” can be misleading as you do not know what they include. 

Foods that are minimally processed or in their natural state are healthier choices. If time is of the essence, try to prep an entire week’s worth of food at one time, portioning it into containers, freezing it for later use, and making your own grab-and-go items. 

Shopping the grocery store’s perimeter is the best way to start a healthier dietary lifestyle. Just remember to read labels and avoid foods that are overly processed and high in sodium or sugar.