May 01, 2023 3 min read

What is a processed food?

Ashley Parrish, Michigan State University Extension - November 26, 2014

What is actually considered a processed food? Are all processed foods unhealthy?

“Avoiding processed foods” – this seems to be the blanket response when someone asks how to eat a healthier diet. What actually is a processed food? Are all processed foods unhealthy? Some of the answers may surprise you.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars and fats.

Minimally processed food retains most of its inherent physical, chemical, sensory and nutritional properties and many minimally processed foods are as nutritious as the food in its unprocessed form.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food falls on a spectrum from minimally processed, to heavily processed.

  • Foods such as sliced fruits and vegetables, bagged salads and leafy greens and roasted nuts are all examples of minimally processed foods.
  • The next category of processed foods includes canned foods such as beans, tuna, fruits and vegetables, as well as frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Jarred pasta sauces, yogurt and salad dressing have added oils, sweeteners and preservatives, which makes them a processed food as well.
  • Examples of heavily processed foods include crackers, deli meat and granolas.
  • The most heavily processed foods examples include pre-packaged and/or frozen meals.

The main goal of processed foods is to make it more convenient for the consumer. There are practical reasons for why certain foods are processed the way they are. The minimally processed foods such as sliced fruits and vegetables make it more convenient for the consumer to eat fruits and vegetables without needing to wash, dry and cut the produce themselves. Canned and frozen foods help to preserve perishable foods at their peak to be consumed at a later date. Adding oils, sweeteners and preservatives help to add texture and flavor to foods. The most heavily processed foods, such as pre-made and frozen dinners require little to no prep and are ready to eat after heating.

Michigan State University Extension encourages that not all processed foods should be deemed evil. There is a time and place for each in a well-balanced diet. People are busy and picking up pre-cut and washed fruits vegetables is a better and less processed option than fruit snacks or vegetable chips. Using canned foods that could otherwise take a long time to prep, such as beans and tuna, helps people in a time crunch to consume these nutritious foods. Keep the “spectrum” in mind when choosing processed foods, so you choose minimally processed foods more often than heavily processed foods.

When choosing processed foods it is important to read the food label; including the ingredient list. This will help you know exactly what is in that food and you are able to make an informed decision. Choose the option with the lowest added sugars, lowest sodium and no trans-fat.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://extension.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit https://extension.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit https://extension.msu.edu/experts, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).