“Processed food is not real food.”
A processed food is any food that is changed from its natural state. This means any food that is cut, chopped, cooked, frozen, dried, salted, fermented, or altered in any way is considered a processed food. Thus, frozen vegetables, bread, and yogurt are all considered processed food. And, while some processed foods may be more heavily changed than others, all processed food starts from a natural (real) plant or animal.
“You should avoid all processed foods.”
It is not necessary to avoid processed foods, nor is it recommended by registered dietitian nutritionists or other health professionals. Processing can make food products more nutritious and palatable, ensure they are safe to eat for longer periods of time, as well as more affordable and accessible. It also allows us to eat healthy foods which we would not normally be able to eat or even digest, if not processed, such as tofu, beans, pulses and legumes, or oatmeal. Avoiding all processed foods also means a life without coffee, chocolate, and wine.
“Processed foods contain no nutritional value.”
Not all processed foods are created equal. Some processed foods, even those classified as ultra-processed, are low in sugar, fat, and sodium and considered healthy. Think of canned fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, and soymilk. Other foods can actually increase in nutritional value due to processing. For example, canning increases the bioavailability of a beneficial nutrient called lycopene in tomatoes while fortified cereals and breads often have iron, folic acid, B-vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients added to them to boost their nutritional value.
“Processed foods negatively impact health.”
In August 2023, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed a nutrient-dense, healthy diet consisting of more than 90% of total calories from ultra-processed foods that aligned with 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and scored more than 25 points higher on the diet quality scale than the average American’s typical diet. It included foods such as flour tortillas, rotisserie chicken, and dried apricots. This proves that following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Find out more about how the guidelines can help reduce the risk of chronic diet-related disease and promote a healthier lifestyle on their website.
“There are no benefits to buying or eating ultra-processed food.”
Some ultra-processed foods offer many benefits. From a nutritional perspective, certain processed and ultra-processed foods contain key nutrients which are often overlooked in a typical diet, such as dietary fiber. For those with a limited income, ultra-processed foods offer a faster and lower-cost way to get dinner on the table. Some people prefer the taste of ultra-processed foods compared to other less processed alternatives. In fact, according to a 2023 consumer Food and Health Survey, convenience, affordability, shelf-life, and taste are the most positive aspects of processed food. These are also likely the main reasons why the survey found 8 in 10 consumers keep processed foods in their household.