What Are Processed Foods and Are They Safe to Eat?

Several different types of processing methods are applied to food. Some types of processing are known to be unhealthy, such as deep frying, but what about other methods, such as canning or baking? Keep reading to learn about the different types of food processing and how these foods can fit into a balanced diet.

Defining processed foods

Processed foods include any food that has been mechanically or chemically altered, which can occur through baking, cooking, and canning. Some forms of light mechanical processing are not detrimental to your health. For example, plain canned beans are cooked and canned, but they are still beans, and their nutritional value remains high.


Another type of processing that can harm your health includes deep frying foods. The high heat chemically alters fat molecules and can turn them into trans fats — a type of fat that is very difficult to metabolize and known to be harmful to your health. You should limit your intake of these foods.

Adding large amounts of salt, fat, and sugar to food during processing alters the nutrition profile and taste (usually making the food more addictive). The presence of these ingredients alters the food away from its natural state, and you should also limit your intake of these foods.

Nutrition tip
Although heavily processed foods are known to be bad for your health, some lightly processed foods are still acceptable.

Different types of food processing

The NOVA food classification system is the current guideline for determining the degree of food processing. There are currently four major classes:

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
  3. Ultra-processed foods
  4. Processed foods

Your diet should primarily be comprised of unprocessed and minimally processed foods. These foods are more likely to maintain high levels of vitamins and essential nutrients, including fiber, which is essential for disease and cancer prevention.

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods you should eat daily include whole vegetables and fruits, unsalted nuts and seeds, whole grain bread and grains, and proteins such as chicken breast, extra lean ground meat, eggs, beans, or fish filet.


Are all processed foods unhealthy?

Some culinary ingredients are mildly processed to promote food safety and maintain shelf life. Examples include pasteurized plain dairy products, whole-grain baked bread, and canned fish. Although these foods have been lightly processed, their nutritional value remains high.

Here are other examples of mildly processed foods that are still considered to be healthy:

  • Frozen vegetables and fruits (as long as no salt or sugar has been added).
  • Whole grains, including plain breakfast oats or quinoa.
  • Precut vegetables and fruits.
  • Roasted nuts and seeds.
  • Canned beans.

How ultra-processed foods impact your health

Ultra-processed foods are the most manipulated compared to other types of processed foods. They tend to have the highest amounts of salt, fat, additives, refined sugars, and the lowest amounts of fiber.

The poor nutritional composition of these foods can result in excess caloric intake (which can lead to unwanted weight gain), increased cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and increased risk for disease.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include candy, baked goods, sodas, and deep-fried items. Grab-and-go meals that can be microwaved and eaten are also considered ultra-processed, including most frozen dinner options or frozen snacks.

Why do we eat ultra-processed foods?

Some ultra-processed foods appeal to us because of their taste and convenience. Although your body can tolerate these foods occasionally, the health risks linked to ultra-processed foods can increase if you consume them regularly.


Ultra-processed foods tend to be lower in cost compared to most non-processed alternatives. Currently, food prices are high, and families may have different budgets than in the past. They may rely on some ultra-processed items during these times. Fortunately, you can enhance the nutritional value of these meals by adding frozen vegetables, which can be more affordable than fresh options.

Tips to cut back on processed foods

Finding time in your schedule to cook can be a significant challenge for some people, but it can be a worthwhile investment in your health. Cooking more food at home can help reduce costs, as takeout meals are often expensive.

You can start by scheduling a weekly or biweekly cooking night at home. Use these evenings to batch cook and prepare several recipes in one shot. You can refrigerate or freeze these meals and enjoy them in the future without having to cook an entire meal from scratch again.

Easy substitutions you can make at home

Here's a list of hacks you can incorporate into your everyday diet to make it healthier:

  • Make condiments at home. Prepare your own sauces, salsas, dips, and dressings at home instead of buying store-bought options.
  • Add flavor yourself. Choose unflavored oats or yogurt for breakfast and enhance the flavor by adding fresh fruits, spices, and nuts instead of sugary toppings.
  • Enhance your water. Decrease your consumption of sugary beverages by infusing plain water with fruits, herbs, or fresh ginger at home.

If you have any questions about the nutritional quality of foods you can message a registered dietitian or other qualified health professional.

Key takeaways:


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