Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid

Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
Published November 07, 2016

Processed food has a bad reputation as a diet saboteur. It’s blamed for our nation’s obesity epidemic, high blood pressure and the rise of Type 2 diabetes. But processed food is more than boxed macaroni and cheese, potato chips and drive-thru hamburgers. It may be a surprise to learn that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup or a chopped apple also are processed foods.

While some processed foods should be consumed with caution, many actually have a place in a balanced diet. Here’s how to sort the nutritious from the not-so-nutritious.

What Is Processed Food?

“The term processed food includes any food that has been purposely changed in some way prior to consumption,” says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.” For example, Armul considers white bread refined since most of the healthy fiber has been removed during the processing. “Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food. It’s also the origin of the term ‘food processor,’ which can be a helpful and convenient tool for preparing healthy meals.”

Processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally to heavily processed:

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

The Positives of Processed

Processed food can be beneficial to your diet. Milk and juices sometimes are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and breakfast cereals may have added fiber. Canned fruit (packed in water or its own juice) is a good option when fresh fruit is not available. Some minimally processed food such as pre-cut vegetables are quality convenience foods for busy people.

“The trick is to distinguish between foods that have been lightly processed versus heavily processed,” says Armul. “Lightly processed foods include pre-cut apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna and frozen vegetables. These are nutritious choices and can make healthy eating more convenient for busy people. Heavily processed foods can be recognized as food not in its original form, like potato chips and crackers, or food that is not naturally occurring, such as sodas, donuts, cookies and candy.”

“Ultimately, you have to familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredient list,” she says. “Do more cooking and food prep at home to maximize control over the food processing.”

Look for Hidden Sugar, Sodium and Fat

Eating processed food in moderation is fine, but consumers should be on the lookout for hidden sugar, sodium and fat.

Added Sugars

“Added sugars are any sugar that is not naturally occurring in the food and has been added manually,” says Armul. “Just because a food is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s free of added sugars, either. The same holds true with reduced-fat and fat-free products. Added sugars often are used in low-fat foods to improve taste and consistency. Compare food labels to find the product with more protein and fiber and less saturated fat and sugars.”

Added sugars aren’t just hidden in processed sweets. They’re added to bread to give it an appealing browned hue, and there often is a surprising amount added to jarred pasta sauces and cereal. The grams of carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts Label also includes naturally occurring sugars which may be a significant amount in foods such as yogurt and fruit. Instead, review a product’s ingredient list and look for added sugars among the first two or three ingredients including sugar, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrate. Beginning in July 2018, grams of added sugars will be included on the Nutrition Facts Label.


Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces have added salt. “Processed foods are major contributors of sodium in our diets, because salt is commonly added to preserve foods and extend shelf life,” says Armul. “Choose foods labeled no salt added, low-sodium or reduced-sodium to decrease the amount of salt you’re consuming from processed foods.”

We need some sodium, but we often consume much more than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation of less than 2,300 milligrams a day.


Added fats can help make food shelf-stable and give it body. Trans fats — which raise our bad cholesterol while lowering our good cholesterol — are on the decline in processed foods, but you should still read food labels.

“The FDA has banned artificial trans fats from the food supply, but companies have until 2018 to comply,” says Armul. “In the meantime, check both the Nutrition Facts Lanel and ingredient list for trans fats. Look for zero grams of trans fats on the label and no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list. These oils contain trans fat, which does not have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts Label if it amounts to less than 0.5 grams per serving. However, even this amount is not safe to consume. If the food lists partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient, put it back.”

Reviewed October 2016


Forget Low-Fat and Low-Sugar, Concentrate on a Healthy Eating Pattern

By Penelope Clark, MS, RDN, CDN
Published April 17, 2017

You want to eat healthfully, but what’s the best way to do it? Some of today’s popular diets say to cut sugar while others restrict fat. “Who can blame the confused consumer when diet books and trends point in different directions,” says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I love to remind my clients that inherently they already know how to eat healthfully. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins will always prevail.”

A Healthy Eating Pattern

Rather than eating an exclusively low-fat or low-sugar diet, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you focus on your overall eating pattern. “Our overall health is not determined by one meal; instead, our health is crafted by a series of lifelong choices and eating patterns,” says McDaniel. Focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, low-fat dairy, seafood and nuts. Meanwhile, eat less red and processed meats, sweetened drinks, desserts and refined grains

McDaniel says that fruits and vegetables should be the “star of the show” when filling your plate. “Supporting cast include whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and a serving of healthy fats,” she says. “While not every plate requires each food group, pairing at least two or three different foods optimizes nutrition and the pleasure of eating.”
McDaniel says that while it’s important to understand the value of portion control, people should not ignore their bodies’ hunger and satiety signals. “I teach my clients to tune in, paying attention to feelings of hunger and fullness,” she says. “Our body should tell us how much to eat. Portion size should parallel our hunger and fullness.”

The Skinny on Fat

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids as part of a healthy eating pattern, and recommends limiting saturated and trans fats. Choosing the right kinds of fats, including those from fatty fish such as salmon, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds is especially important.

5 Tips for Making Good Decisions about Fat

  • Try grilled, steamed or baked salmon, trout or mackerel instead of fried or breaded fish.
  • Vary your protein choices by eating more seafood and legumes.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat and remove visible fat. Remove skin and fat from poultry.
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products. 
  • Top salads with nuts or seeds instead of croutons. Use vegetable oil-based salad dressings instead of cream-based dressings.

The Skinny on Sugar

The average American consumes more than 13 percent of daily calories from added sugars — yet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of daily calories. By going above 10 percent, it’s difficult to maintain an overall healthy eating pattern. Added sugars can be found in foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grain snacks and desserts. Naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit and milk are not added sugars.

“For most Americans, reducing added sugars doesn’t mean they have to scrutinize every food label,” says McDaniel. “While there are ‘hidden’ sugars in foods, most of us can reduce added sugars by focusing on the biggest offenders: sugar sweetened beverages, sweet snacks and desserts.”

3 Tips for Reducing Added Sugar

  • Re-think sweets: Save sugary desserts for special occasions.
  • Instead of a post-dinner dessert, close out a family mealtime with a cup of decaf coffee or herbal tea — but enjoy it without added sweeteners or cream.
  • Switch from sweetened yogurt with added fruit to plain low-fat yogurt. Then, add fresh fruit for a nutritious, naturally sweet mid-morning snack. Fruit and low-fat dairy contain natural sugars that provide nutrients that promote health.


Reviewed May 2016Penelope Clark, MS, RDN, CDN, is a nutrition communications consultant in New York City and president of Connect Nutrition Group.


4 Ways to Shed the Weight for Good

Reviewed by Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN
Published April 10, 2017


While losing extra weight can be challenging, keeping the weight off can be even more challenging. Most people who lose weight gain it back, but there are a handful of key strategies research has suggested helps keep the weight off for good.

Step Up!
On the scale, that is. People who maintain their weight loss are more likely to continue weighing themselves on a scale regularly than people who gain back their weight loss. “Stepping on the scale regularly is important for staying on track,” says Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It helps motivate setting healthy intentions for the day and that’s a good reason to weigh first thing in the morning. Whether you weigh once a week or daily, regular weigh-ins will help you control your weight.”

Keep It Going
To maintain weight loss, you have to maintain the behaviors that helped you lose the weight in the first place. Weighing yourself regularly is one of those good behaviors; Mills says it also is important to eat breakfast, keep track of your food intake and exercise habits, and stick to appropriate portions. “Practicing portion control works whether you are at a party, restaurant or home,” she says. “Simply choosing the right amount eliminates having to know how many calories are in each specific food.”

Be a Problem Solver
Weight loss maintainers more often used productive problem solving skills. “It’s okay to have treats now and again, or to even slip up a little, but you want to be able to stop a slip before it becomes a complete fall off your plan,” says Mills. “It can be tough to pick yourself up after a fall, so catching yourself can make a big motivational difference.” For instance, maintaining an exercise routine and planning meals for the week are a couple helpful strategies.

Talk to Yourself
Those who maintain healthy lifestyle behaviors are more likely to engage in positive self-talk. And that doesn’t necessarily mean chatting to the mirror. Journaling can be a form of positive verbal reinforcement. Mills says keeping a food and activity log promotes mindfulness, provides accountability and motivates more good choices. How can you overcome a plateau if you’re still trying to lose — or if you do start to regain? Try shaking up your exercise routine rather than slashing calories drastically. “Nothing is worse than trying to do something that is boring,” says Mills. “Keep physical activity exciting by doing different things that you enjoy. Having fun is key no matter what you do, plus doing a variety of activities will keep the calories burning by challenge muscles in a different ways.”

Reviewed July 2016