What Are Processed Foods 1

What Are Processed Foods & What To Avoid (+ FREE Recipe!)

Thank you to Northern Nevada Health System for sponsoring this post on “what are processed foods” by Taylor Forsmark RD, LD, Director, Food & Nutrition Services. Read our disclosure.

One of the most common questions we get asked is “what are processed foods” and how can we make better choices when it feels like we cannot tell the difference?

As we reach the end of another year, a wave of health-conscious messages will start making their way into our homes. Rather than get muddled in the latest diet or food trends, stick to the basics and set a goal of eating a healthful diet – not a restrictive one.

Keep reading for Taylor’s favorite winter recipe the whole family can enjoy!

What Are Processed Foods

If you want to make changes to your eating habits, evaluate how much highly processed food accounts for your family’s diet. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, processed food is any raw agriculture that has been altered from its natural state.

So as you shop and ask yourself “what are processed foods” that you’ve added to your basket, it’s the alteration of foods. This alteration includes washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures.

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This may also involve adding other ingredients, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.

Don’t worry, not all processed foods are deemed unhealthy. As you can see, most of the food we purchase is processed in some way.

It’s all about balance and categorizing foods to know which provide the highest nutritional content and give you lasting energy. So, let’s break down processed foods from those that are minimally to highly processed.

Minimally Processed vs. Highly Processed Foods

As a registered dietitian, I advise patients how to eat healthful foods long after they leave the hospital. With most individuals, heavily processed foods should be avoided, when possible.

However, we know this is not always feasible, so the rule of thumb is moderation.

Minimally processed foods should have a place in your diet. These foods are usually prepared for convenience and provide great nutritional value.

This includes bagged spinach or lettuce, sliced vegetables or roasted nuts. Other examples such as low-fat milk and whole-grain breads are all considered processed foods but are fortified with important vitamins and minerals.

What Are Processed Foods

In addition, some foods like canned vegetables, frozen fruit and canned tuna are processed at their peak to hold in the nutritional quality and freshness.

Opposite to this list of foods are heavily processed foods that contain high levels of sodium, sugar, and saturated fats than is recommended in a healthful diet. This is where the “what are processed foods” answer comes in on those items you should avoid.

Ready-to-eat foods such as crackers, chips, and deli meat are highly processed as well as frozen and pre-made meals such as pizza and microwaveable meals.

Reading Food Labels and the Salty Six

It’s clear that most foods are processed mainly for convenience and freshness. So, how do you avoid getting trapped by hidden ingredients and foods that appear to be healthy but might be full of less-than-ideal products?

Reading food labels is very important. You can tell if a food is minimally processed or highly processed simply by the list of ingredients. For example, a bag of spinach will just say spinach leaves compared to a frozen pizza that may have more than 20 ingredients including additives and preservatives – many that seem like a foreign language.

There are a few important sections of a food label to notice including serving size, calories, nutrients, and understanding percent daily value. Check out the American Heart Association’s guide for reading labels.

As you read labels, don’t ignore saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. When it comes to these three, less is always best. We have become accustomed to eating sodium by having it available at our dinner tables and consuming it in most processed foods.

The American Heart Association shares research linking excess sodium intake to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

They recommend keeping your consumption to 1,500 mg/day and minimizing the salty six in your diet – bread/rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts, soup, burritos, and tacos.

Food Swaps – Going from Highly Processed to Minimally Processed

Families are busy, maybe on a budget, or may not always have access to fresh and healthful foods. Take it one step at a time when making diet changes for yourself and your family. Start with what’s available at your local grocer and read restaurant menus closely to pick healthier options.

Here are a few of my go-to swaps that make cooking common meals simple.

  • Swap refined grains like white pasta, rice, bread, and tortillas for whole-grain alternatives, such as brown rice and whole-grain pasta, bread, and tortillas.
  • Use more fresh fruits or canned in water or natural fruit juice instead of canned in syrup.
  • Trade the sugary breakfast cereal for a bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit.
  • Pop your own popcorn on the stove in place of microwave popcorn.
  • Make a homemade salad dressing instead of buying processed dressings.
  • Create a trail mix using nuts, seeds, and dried fruit for a healthy alternative to store-bought.
  • Include the kids in a fun homemade pizza night instead of baking a frozen pizza.
  • Cook at home often so you are in control of the ingredients.

What Are Processed Foods

Taylor’s Favorite Winter Recipe – Turkey Chili

A recipe I love to make in the winter is Turkey Chili. This recipe gives you an opportunity to reduce sodium while making a home-cooked, healthful meal.


  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1lb ground turkey
  • 1 medium red onion (chopped)
  • 1 packet Mrs. Dash salt-free chili seasoning mix or McCormick 30-percent less sodium chili seasoning mix
  • 1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes no added salt
  • 1 can Black Beans (low sodium/less sodium/no added salt)
  • 1 can Pinto Beans (low sodium/less sodium/no added salt)
  • 1 can Kidney Beans (low sodium/less sodium/no added salt)
  • 1 can White/Northern Beans (low sodium/less sodium/no added salt)
  • 2 5.5 oz can V8 Juice low sodium


  1. Heat olive oil and soften onion in large pot
  2. Brown ground turkey and drain when fully cooked
  3. Add chili seasoning packet, diced tomatoes, beans, and V8 Juice. Mix well.
  4. Let simmer on low heat for one hour
  5. Enjoy with your favorite toppings such as shredded cheese, sliced avocado, and sour cream.


As you start implementing more wholesome and healthier options into your diet, you won’t be second-guessing yourself on what are processed foods.

Additional References:


Northern Nevada Health System is a regional network of care that has elevated and improved access to healthcare for 40 years. The System operates two acute care hospitals located in Sparks and Reno, 24/7 freestanding emergency departments, a Medical Group which offers family and internal medicine, urgent care and specialty care, and Quail Surgical and Pain Management. NNHS is committed to maintaining and improving the well-being of the community and is known for top-rated patient satisfaction, in addition to providing quality care and a safe environment for patients to heal. To learn more, visit northernnevadahealth.com.