The back of a Caucasian man shopping in a grocery aisle with text "Minimally to Ultra-Processed Foods"

We have all been warned about processed foods as opposed to whole foods. Research has shown time and time again that a diet rich in processed foods is often high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, creating a higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

But what the heck is processed food? Technically a “processed food” is any food that’s been changed before eating it, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That means food like a bag of spinach can be considered a processed food. The greens have been trimmed and washed before making it into the kitchen.

Processed foods fall on a spectrum from minimally to ultra-processed:
• Minimally processed – such as bagged spinach, cut veggies, and even roasted nuts (pre-prepped puts these items into a processed category).
• Processed – packaged and comprised with more than one ingredient and most often do not resemble their original form. For example, canned foods with added sugar, salt or oils.
• Ultra-processed – consider an ultra-processed food as a formulation rather than a whole food. It contains 5 or more ingredients that we cannot pronounce. This type of processed food is convenient, ready-to-eat, attractive, and has a long shelf life. Ultra-processed foods are frozen pizzas, chocolate, microwave dinners, and most fast foods. Some sugary breakfast cereals fall into this category.

A little processing is okay as most of us partake in food products that have undergone some processing such as cheese, dried spices, and canned tuna, for example. Some processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet as long as they don’t contain preservatives, colors, artificial flavorings, added sugars, or other unhealthy ingredients.

Occasionally having food that is processed isn’t the end of the world. Understanding the difference between minimally and ultra-processed foods is as simple as reading the product label. Remember, the less ingredients listed for the product, the more wholesome it is.

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