IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Are all 'processed foods' really bad for you?

Many people say they try to avoid "processed food" as if it's a kind of poison.
/ Source: TODAY

Many people say they try to avoid “processed food” as if it’s a kind of poison. It’s a well-intentioned goal, but certain processed foods make our lives more convenient, safer — and in many ways, even more healthful.

Fresh Homemade Whole Wheat Bread.
Not all processed foods are bad.Shutterstock

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, a processed food is “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.”

So that means many highly nutritious frozen vegetables, sliced whole grain bread, canned beans, nut butters, and even milk and yogurt are all technically processed foods. We don't eat stalks of wheat, we eat bread, and wheat must be processed to create bread. Even pre-chopped fruit or vegetables are processed.

You’ve probably heard health experts saying to "shop the perimeter" of a grocery store.

That’s because the center of the store is where most of the highly processed foods reside. However, some of the healthiest foods can also be found in the center of your supermarket so it's important to learn how to make the most of the middle, and know good processed foods from bad.

The good news is certain processed foods are healthier than some foods found in their natural state, such as:

  • Plain yogurt with added cultures, for example, retains the protein and calcium naturally found in dairy products, and it also includes added good bacteria to help boost our gut function and immune systems.
  • Canned tomatoes contain more lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation, than fresh tomatoes do, especially when they are eaten simultaneously with a small amount of oil to enhance its absorption.

Summer produce: Your guide to what's in seasons and how to eat it

Without these foods, it would be extremely difficult — and a lot more expensive — to feed a family a nutritious diet. So, the next time you shop, keep these basic guidelines in mind.

5 ingredients or less.

Raw vegetables

Long ingredient lists with words that you need to take a chemistry class to understand could mean the product is overly-processed.

Try limiting your shopping trip to fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins, and when it comes to packaged products, look for those with only 5 ingredients or less, if possible.

Avoid foods that should not contain added sugar, like nut butters.

At the present time our food labels don't distinguish between natural sugar (in fruit and milk, for example) and added sugar (in breakfast cereals and breads).

What's an added sugar? How to read the labels

Sugar is the master of disguise, wearing over 20 different names on food labels.

Be aware that corn syrup, malt syrup, rice syrup, organic cane juice, honey, and molasses are all sugars. As are maltodextrin, and any other words ending in “-ose.”

Why do we have a sweet tooth? 5 surprising facts about sugar

Be cautious of the sodium content.

Salt is often added to processed foods as a preservative, or to increase shelf life. Try to limit your intake to less than 2,300mg daily, the amount suggested by our Dietary Guidelines. Try to shake the habit of salting foods even before tasting them.

Finally, look for other low daily value percentages — 5 percent or less — of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

Enjoy these foods that are technically processed but nutritious:

Throw protein and vegetables over grains for a delicious dinner.
A grain bowl with vegetables and protein.Maya Visnyei

100% whole grains like oats, barley, buckwheat, quinoa

Pre-chopped vegetables and fruit

Canned beans

Frozen veggies and fruit

Nut and seed butter without added sugar and salt.

Milk (even soy and almond milk are processed)

Veggie burgers and tofu

Frozen chicken breasts (unbreaded)

Wild canned salmon (the bones are a great source of calcium)

Plain Greek yogurt (versus flavored yogurt)

100% whole grain or sprouted grain bread (with no added sugar and whole grains as the first ingredient)

Avoid processed foods loaded with salt, sugar, fats, additives, artificial flavorings, and chemicals, including:

carrot cake cupcakes
Anthony Quintano/TODAY


Frozen dinners

Frozen burgers or chicken tenders with fillers added

Hot dogs

Gummy candies

Chips, crackers, cookies and other snack foods with long ingredient lists

Artificially colored cheese

Soda pop and juices that are not 100% juice

Remember that a healthy diet has room for all foods, but on a daily basis, choosing the least processed, whole foods is best.

For more from Bonnie Taub-Dix,RDN go to Better Than Dieting at