The Spectrum of Processed Foods: From minimally-processed to highly-processed

by | May 6, 2019 | Last updated Apr 17, 2023

Author: Caitlin Suter, MS

You’ve most likely heard the term “processed foods” and that you should reduce them in your diet. Or, you just feel some sort of way about them, and it’s probably for good reason. While there’s truth in what you’ve heard, it’s not as black and white as choosing to consume or not consume processed foods. It’s possible that you might even think you’re avoiding processed foods in your diet, but because there are different degrees of processed food, you might not be.

So, what does “processed” mean when it comes to food?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines food processing as “any raw agricultural commodity [product] that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” It is also defined as “food changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways.”

To break it down, it’s any food that has been changed from its “original, raw form” and if it has a nutrition facts label, you’d be safe to bet that, it’s processed in some way.

Don’t panic! Some processes maintain healthy qualities.

Processing can be as simple as cutting up or bagging fresh produce for convenience to save time at home or on-the-go. Processes like pasteurizing or canning can prevent spoilage and/or increase food safety. Other processes, like fortifying, can make foods nutrient-dense to provide more vitamins and minerals.

However, processing can also be as complex as adding preservatives and stripping (milling) foods of original nutrients to extend shelf life, or adding ingredients like salt, sugar, and fats for taste, which makes foods more calorically dense.

What are the effects of consuming processed foods?

Processed foods can range from being minimally processed, to moderately processed, or highly-processed. The more processed a food is, the higher the sodium, sugar, and/or fat content, and as a result, the less healthy the food becomes. More processed foods in your diet can mean a higher risk for heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and Type II Diabetes.

Highly-processed foods are also known to be less satiating than whole and minimally-processed foods. The more you consume moderately and highly-processed foods, the more likely you are to crave more of them because they can skew your hunger cues, make you crash, and affect the reward center of the brain.

Meet the spectrum

Next time you’re planning your meals or writing out your grocery list, consider unprocessing your diet by choosing whole or minimally processed foods. You can use the list below as a guide.

Minimally-processed: Few ingredients, if any, and prepped foods.

  • Pre-cut produce
  • Bagged spinach
  • Bagged salads
  • Roasted nuts
  • Frozen produce
  • Canned produce without added sugars and sodium
  • Steel cut and rolled oats
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Fresh/frozen meat & fish
  • Milk
  • Eggs

Moderately-processed: Moderate ingredients with added salt, sugar, fats and oils.

  • Whole grain products
  • Cheese
  • Some jarred sauces
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Lunch meats
  • Canned meat & fish

Highly-processed: Many ingredients with salt, sugar, fats, oils + flavors, coloring, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives.

  • Refined grain products
  • Soda
  • Cakes, cookies, pies, candy
  • Other sauces, gravies, dressings
  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Frozen dinners