What Are Processed Foods?

Food processing has become increasingly associated with negative health outcomes lately. Many doctors, sports professionals, and nutritionists are advising against processed food openly and vehemently.
On the other hand, food suppliers and manufacturers are constantly devising new ways of preserving, recreating, and presenting food. Along with claims that their excessive manipulation doesn’t really affect the foods they make.
Some even promise that their modified version of a food substance is even better than the original form. For example, milk that’s pasteurized and fortified with extra vitamins.
Before debating whether or not these products are healthful, it’s essential to understand first what are processed foods.

What Exactly Are Processed Foods?

Food processing is any modification made to the natural form of any edible material. It’s actually an ancient activity that humans have known for thousands of years. The basic motive was always preserving food to last through the cold season.
Additionally, it was always important to make good use of available crops, meat, or produce instead of letting it rot and go to waste. Some of these old crafts still exist today, like salting, drying, pickling, and smoking.
Foods are labeled as processed even if they are picked from a tree, washed, and packed. Clearly, this is a far cry from the processed sauces or snacks with a gazillion ingredients. Some foods are barely even all-natural. They could contain a bunch of chemicals to improve their flavor, color, or texture.

The Four Main Levels of Food Processing

The food industry doesn’t have a strict classification of processed food, and neither do dieticians or medical associations. However, there are some conventional categories that seem to be clear and accessible to society at large.
Here are the main levels of processing:

Minimally Processed Foods

These are foods that get the least amount of intervention from suppliers. They could be picked, sliced, sorted, roasted, or packaged. This doesn’t affect the natural form of a food substance or does so in the slightest manner.
These items often have a limited shelf-life. But, consumers see that as a feature rather than a bug. Fresh foods are an integral part of any healthy diet.
Examples include
  • Sliced fruits
  • Mixed berries
  • Roasted nuts
  • Coffee beans
  • Quinoa
  • Assorted lettuce packs
  • Meat
  • Chicken
  • Shrimp
  • Oysters

Moderately Processed Foods

These foods still don’t contain any extras, especially chemical additives. They only get a physical treatment that extends their shelf-life.
This is often achieved by heating, drying, pasteurization, freezing, juicing, or canning. A huge amount of food that people consume on a daily basis belongs to this category.
Here are some examples:
  • Canned tuna
  • Raisins
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Milk
  • Natural pure juice
  • Frozen peas and carrots
  • Tomato paste
  • Black pepper
  • Tea
  • Maple syrup
  • Olive oil

Highly Processed Foods

Here, the food industry does a lot more than pick and pack. An extensive amount of processing goes into making an edible product.
The final packed and sold food is often a combination of various ingredients. The original taste, texture, and smell of the mixed foods should still be discernible, at least to some extent. Additionally, these foods contain minimal amounts of chemical additives.
The manufacturing processes profit more from making these items easy to store and consume. They often pack them in convenient containers, allow them to be stored at room temperature, and extend their longevity.
Adding extra salt, sugar, or fats is a normal part of the process. This enhances the taste and form of the food significantly, and incidentally, extends its shelf-life.
Most of the extra-tasty, crunchy, or ready-to-eat products fall into this category. They’re pretty easy to identify, and here are some of the most popular items:
  • Cereal
  • Potato chips
  • Salted nuts
  • Sweetened fruit juices
  • Cake mix
  • Mayonnaise sauce
  • Italian dressing
  • Pickles
  • Curry powder
  • Yogurt
  • Cookies
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Sausage
  • Pasta

Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are characterized by being quite different from their natural form. Also, by the huge amount of additives that go into the mix.
Artificial sweeteners, synthetic flavors, preservatives, and bulking agents top the list of chemical food additives. There are plenty more materials that food factories incorporate into these super-processed foods.
The main reason is to make a food product irresistible to the palate. Other causes include improving other aspects of the product, like its smell or consistency.
Moreover, many vegan products can mimic real foods by tossing in some additives. This helps in selling vegan foods to a larger base of consumers.
It’s easy to spot ultra-processed foods from the long list of ingredients on their labels. Here are some examples of these foods:
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Hamburger
  • Candy
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Energy drinks
  • Hot dog
  • Frozen dinners
  • Protein shakes
  • Diet ice-cream
  • Margarine
  • Imitation cheese
  • Vegan burger
  • Crab paste

Are Processed Foods Unhealthy?

Here’s a fact: human physiology hasn’t changed much since the time cavemen roamed the earth. Clearly, there are significant lifestyle differences from then to now, but that did not reflect on the evolution of the human biological system.
Another interesting fact: biology was tailored to suit historic humans more than contemporary ones. This is primarily why nutritional regimens like the Paleo diet gained popularity these past few years.
The excessive amounts of sugar, salt, unhealthy fat, and chemicals people consume nowadays eventually overload their systems. Modern-time illnesses like autoimmune diseases, cancer, allergies, food intolerance, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, and a host of other health issues.
Additionally, obesity is becoming a national and even global health issue. Unfortunately, it comes with a host of secondary problems that affect individuals severely.
That’s why many health professionals, functional medicine specialists, and nutritionists advocate steering clear of highly processed foods.

How to Choose Healthy Processed Foods?

Lightly processed foods are often the best options. A diet that consists primarily of natural products is usually associated with better health outcomes than heavily processed foods.
As an example, the Mediterranean diet relies mostly on fresh stuff. The people who cook like that regularly usually look and feel great. They’re also known to live long and have active lives.
As a rule of thumb, if the food isn’t recognizable, differs too much from its natural form, or if its label has more than three ingredients, then it’s probably not too healthy.


Any food that isn’t picked straight from a plant or collected directly from a farm animal is processed food. And since most people live in cities, away from farms, they’re bound to use food that comes from a process.
The trick is to look for foods that are minimally processed, as these are known to be the healthiest choices.
Then again, eating the occasional burger or frozen dinner isn’t really the end of the world. As long as it doesn’t become a habit, then people should enjoy their life. Everything in moderation is always good.