In a huge cross-sectional study of what Americans eat every day, researchers at the University of São Paulo and Tufts University in Massachusetts found that more than half of the foods that Americans eat are “ultra-processed.”
The researchers define ultra-processed foods as those containing substances you wouldn’t ordinarily use while cooking—“flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives”—that either “imitate unprocessed or minimally processed foods” or “disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.” They’re packed with stuff designed to trick your senses into thinking that the gunk you’re about to eat actually tastes, smells, or looks like the real food you should be eating.
Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are literally sham food. And they make up a whopping 57.9% of the American diet. By comparison, minimally processed or unprocessed foods—like meat, most fruits and vegetables, eggs, pasta, and milk—make up only 29.6% of Americans’ daily food consumption. The rest of the average American diet consists of just plain "processed" foods (as opposed to ultra-processed or minimally processed ones) like cheese.
One advantage of cooking food from scratch at home is that you know exactly what is going into it, including the amount of added salt or sugar. However, even homemade food sometimes uses processed ingredients. Read on to find out how you can eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet.
What counts as processed food?
- breakfast cereals
- tinned vegetables
- savory snacks, such as crisps
- meat products, such as bacon
- "convenience foods", such as microwave meals or ready meals
- drinks, such as milk or soft drinks
Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurizing products.
Not all processed food is a bad choice. Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.
Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while tinned produce (choose those without added sugar and salt) can mean convenient storage, cooking and choice to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh.
What makes some processed foods less healthy?
This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts for these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.
Furthermore, a diet high in red and processed meat (regularly eating more than 90g a day) has also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Some studies have also shown that eating a large amount of processed meat may be linked to a higher risk of cancer or heart disease.
What is processed meat?
The Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, that you cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, with each about the size of half a slice of bread.
However, it's important to remember that the term "processed" applies to a very broad range of foods, many of which can be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
How can I eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet?
How do I know if a processed food is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt?
Conclusion: It’s fine to eat processed foods in moderation. Look at the nutrition facts label and ingredients before you come to the conclusion if a processed food is good or bad.
Processed Foods - What's OK, What to Avoid
Reviewed by Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN
Published November 09, 2015