Processed Foods: Are They Really That Bad for You?

Processed foods have a bad reputation. Countless articles blame processed foods for obesity and chronic disease, and we’re frequently advised to rid our diets of processed foods to improve our health.

This negative reputation isn’t entirely accurate for all processed foods, though.

“Processing refers to any alteration to the food, whether it’s heating, freezing, washing or pasteurizing,” says UNC Health registered dietitian Natalie Newell. “Unless you eat an apple straight from the tree, it’s going to be difficult to avoid all processing.”

A bag of washed baby spinach is technically processed, but that’s not the kind of food item that worries dietitians and health experts. Instead, you need to be concerned about foods that have been defined as “ultraprocessed.”

Newell explains distinctions in food processing and what you need to know about processing when choosing your foods.

Types of Food Processing

In 2009, researchers in Brazil introduced the Nova scale to differentiate between types of food processing. The scale has four categories:

  • Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These foods come directly from plants or animals and may undergo alterations such as washing, trimming, cutting, packaging and flash freezing. They include fruits and vegetables, nuts, fresh meat, eggs, milk and natural spices.
  • Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients. Oils, vinegar, honey, salt, sugar and butter are examples of this group. These ingredients may require pressing, refining, milling or drying but are generally free of additives and are used to prepare food.
  • Group 3: Processed foods. In this group, ingredients from groups 1 and 2 are combined, either to make the food more flavorful or to preserve it for longer. Examples include canned fruits and vegetables, cheese, smoked or dried meat, canned fish and salted nuts.
  • Group 4: Ultraprocessed foods. These foods have additive ingredients such as artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners; preservatives; and thickeners and emulsifiers that increase shelf life, and they typically go through multiple processing steps. Items in this group include potato chips, cookies, candy, cereal, pastries, flavored yogurts, hot dogs and soda.

“Ultraprocessed foods currently make up the majority of Americans’ diets,” Newell says. “They tend to be cheaper, easier to make and readily available.”

While they may be more convenient, ultraprocessed foods are usually lower in nutrients and come with significant health risks.

The Health Risks of Ultraprocessed Foods

“Ultraprocessed foods have a lot of fat, salt and sugar,” Newell says. “Those ingredients are an inexpensive way to add a lot of flavor to food.”

Because Americans eat so many ultraprocessed foods, they quickly exceed dietary recommendations related to fat, salt and sugar.

“As an example, the typical person should be consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day,” Newell says. “Most Americans are consuming 5,000 to 6,000 milligrams per day because of these foods.”

Diets high in ultraprocessed foods have been linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. They also have an effect on mental health and are associated with depression.

“There’s a direct link to our diet choices and how we feel,” Newell says. “People who eat a lot of ultraprocessed foods and consume empty calories—without many vitamins or minerals—tend to have less energy and more brain fog.”

Making Smarter Choices About Processed Foods at the Grocery Store

The grocery store can be a confusing place if you’re trying to avoid ultraprocessed foods. Newell says it’s good to focus on the perimeter of the store, where foods usually have less processing.

“Look for items that have been packaged or frozen with only a little alteration,” Newell says. That includes fresh fruits and vegetables; frozen fruits and vegetables without added sauces, spices or sweeteners; and fresh meat from the butcher.

Newell recommends buying these items in their natural state and adding your own spices and oils, which allows you to control what goes into each dish.

It’s important to note that some ultraprocessed foods lurk on the perimeter of the grocery store, including deli meat and some salad dressings.

Wherever you are in the store, but especially in the center, read the labels of the items you’re considering.

“If it comes in a package, look at the ingredients,” Newell says. “Are there five or more ingredients? When you look at those first five ingredients, are there any that you can’t pronounce or recognize? If so, you should probably put the item back.”

Comparing labels for the same food might help you find the healthiest option. Some loaves of bread, for example, are ultraprocessed and lacking in nutrients, whereas other loaves may be processed but with healthier ingredients. Similarly, plain oatmeal has less processing than flavored oatmeal.

“There are always alternatives and healthier options,” Newell says.

Avoid Ultraprocessed Foods with Meal Planning

We often turn to ultraprocessed foods because of their convenience and our busy schedules. Newell recommends investing time in meal planning and prepping to lessen the need to reach for ultraprocessed foods on hectic days.

“Meal planning can be overwhelming to people who aren’t used to it, so start small,” Newell says. “Plan one lunch and dinner with minimally processed foods. Then build on that by planning three nights at a time.”

By taking the time to plan meals, you’ll probably find ways to save time elsewhere.

“You can cook ground turkey breast once, then make multiple meals, like tacos and spaghetti with a meat sauce,” Newell says. “You can also make several Mason jar salads at once, and those are a great alternative to fast-food lunches.”

Newell acknowledges that it takes more effort to avoid ultraprocessed food, but the savings in fat, sodium and sugar are worth it.

“We should know what’s in our food,” Newell says. “When we prioritize the nutritional value of a food, there are a lot of health benefits beyond just weight.”

If you have questions about your dietary needs, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.