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What’s the Real Problem with Processed Foods?

Updated on February 11, 2020
Steve Marteski profile image

I am a lifelong diet and fitness student. I have been writing fitness and nutrition articles and coaching for over 15 years.

Pretty much every diet and every dietitian and diet coach universally agrees and reiterates that we should avoid processed foods. But what really are processed foods? By definition a processed food is a food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. With that said, this can be as severe as freeze dried ice cream with chemical preservatives added that the astronauts eat or simply an organic salad that is packaged in a bag. It is a very broad definition. Yet, all packaged foods are pretty much equally vilified. But processed foods have some benefits in that they can be quite easy and convenient for those (most) of us who do not have all day to prep food.

Processing in and of itself is not a problem. It all depends on what that process is. If you are adding chemicals and unhealthy additives, yes, this can be a very bad thing. But if all you are doing is using a machine to cut up an organic grapefruit and put it in a container, this isn’t really a problem. Just like fresh foods, some processed foods are bad, and some are actually excellent.

Dieting is very complicated. Part of how people have come to deal with this complicity is to oversimplify EVERYTHING. People always want to label something as “good” or “bad” ……in reality, pretty much everything falls into the grey area where it can be either good or bad, depending on the context. Let me give you an example….If someone has eaten zero dietary fat for three weeks….for them, a highly processed piece of bacon is excellent for them to eat because they need the fat. Likewise, if someone has drunk 4 gallons of water one day, that fifth gallon of water could very well kill them. It’s all context. If you are deficient in something, getting some of it is usually a good thing. However, if you have an overabundance of something in your diet, anything, even broccoli, then eating more, for you, is bad.

The reason processed foods get such a bad rap has more to do with what these foods are than the actual processing of them. Processed foods are a group that include Oreo cookies, Captain Crunch cereal, Cheetos, etc etc. That’s what we think of when we think of processed foods. The fact is that 95% of all processed foods ARE generally bad in most scenarios. However, this is more a result of their ingredients (high fructose corn syrup and all its friends) more so then the fact that they were processed. For instance, if you were to take all the raw ingredients of an Oreo, straight off the farm (or wherever they come from) they would all add up to the same poor macronutrient content as they are in the package, that hasn’t changed. And the fact is, they weren’t healthy before they were processed either. Technically, processed foods also include bagged salads, much fruit juice, various vegetable preparations and more.

It’s definitely true that a lot of food processing does add in preservatives, chemicals and additives….however this is not always the case. Some “processed” foods do not have these chemicals and additives, and are quite healthy.

Overall, not all processed foods need to be avoided. Just like any kind of food, some are good and some are bad. Use judgement as to each one individually if its fits into your diet. The fact is they can be quite convenient and fit very well into your diet.


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