If you spend time with health-conscience people at all, you properly have heard them talk about avoiding “processed foods“. As a dietitian, I hear this term used often but I do not think everyone understands what the term “processed” means. According to the Oxford dictionary, process means to “perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines process as “a series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result” or “a series of changes that happen naturally”. If you look up “food processing” on Wikipedia, you find it defined as “the transformation of raw ingredients, by physical or chemical means into food, or of food into other forms”. So if we really examine what food processing means, we discover that almost all of our food is processed in some way. That includes being washed, packaged, sliced, chopped, cooked or preserved in some manner. You will also notice that processed can refer to a series of changes that happen naturally. This would apply to the process of making butter, cheese, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, vinegar, wine, beer and yogurt. Processing foods for the purpose of preserving them has been around for thousands of years and includes drying, curing, canning or freezing. Pasteurization is a process that makes foods safe to consume by killing harmful pathogens.
I have said all of that to say that as a dietitian, it is bothersome when I hear well-meaning doctors or nurses tell someone to “just avoid processed foods”. This dietary advice does nothing to define which processed foods to avoid and frankly just adds to the confusion. So unless you are growing or purchasing plant-based foods and eating them raw, you are eating some processed foods. Processing food is necessary sometimes and usually improves the taste. Sometimes it even helps us absorb the nutrients better.
So let me clarify what we should be looking for in “processed” foods. In general, you will have a label for any food that is processed in some manner. First, the ingredients should be actual foods, not a list of chemical additives and preservatives. Second, the first few ingredients in the list should actually be good for you. Because ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, the first few listed should not be sugar in any form or include artificial ingredients. This minimizes any nutritional value. Third, the ingredients must provide something that the body needs such as vitamins, minerals or fiber. Fourth, the food should not contain excessive amounts of sodium, nitrates, nitrites or other preservatives.
The truth is that we all consume some form of processed foods whether we eat a vegan, paleo, clean, whole foods, or other diet. So the next time you sit down to grass-fed beef with homegrown canned green beans, just remember that these foods were processed in some way. Just smile and ask your healthcare provider to explain what they mean by avoiding “processed food” the next time you get generic advice like that. Here is to good food in moderation with a heaping spoonful of common sense.