You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “highly processed” applied to foods, probably in contexts suggesting that this is an unhealthy attribute. But what exactly does this term mean, how many foods fall into this category, and why are they often frowned upon?
Food processing is any procedure that alters food from its natural state, such as heating, freezing, milling, mixing, and adding flavorings. Cooking and preparing raw ingredients at home is also processing them, but “processed” is almost always reserved for commercial foods, usually packaged.
Of course, food processing can be a good thing—it helps “ensure a safe, diverse, abundant, and accessible food supply,” according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But many experts believe that excessive consumption of highly processed foods leads to poor diets (and high obesity rates). That may be especially true of ready-to-eat foods, which can be consumed quickly and easily, before satiety signals kick in.
To test this notion, the new study looked at purchases of packaged foods and beverages from more than 150,000 households and analyzed them in terms of their processing, convenience, and nutritional quality. Some key findings:
- Highly processed foods supplied 63 percent of daily calories. These are defined as “multi-ingredient industrially formulated mixtures” that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal sources—everything from hot dogs, margarine, and frozen entrées to most baked goods, ice cream, and candies.
- Moderately processed foods and those processed for basic preservation accounted for another 30 percent of calories. Examples include white rice, pasta, peanut butter, canned produce, cheese, butter, yogurt, ham, and jam.
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods accounted for only 7 percent of daily calories. These are “whole foods” such as fresh or frozen produce, beans, nuts, eggs, brown rice, milk, and fresh meats.
- Ready-to-eat foods account for 64 percent of calories; ready-to-heat (“convenience”) foods, another 17 percent. Only 19 percent of calories come from foods that require preparation and cooking at home.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that highly processed and/or ready-to-eat foods supply not only most of our calories but also a disproportionate share of the sugar, sodium, and saturated fat that we eat.
What’s to be done? Food companies sometimes try to develop highly processed foods that are healthier, though they haven’t had a good track record with this, and consumers often don’t like the results.
The alternative: Buy more whole or minimally processed foods and do the “processing” yourself. It’s called home cooking, done from scratch, as much as possible. For a variety of easy, healthy ideas, see our Recipes section.