How to minimize processed foods in your diet

What to Know

  • Learn the difference between minimally and highly processed foods
  • Highly processed foods may be great for convenience, but tend to be less nutritious

Almost all foods are processed in some way: harvesting, flash freezing, pasteurizing, smoking, and crushing are all types of processing. Increasingly, foods are also refined, which is the removal of certain parts. Such as the milling of grain to make flour and removing the outer bran and germ in the process, where most of the grain’s nutrients are found. The type of processing and the degree of refining affect the form and quality of a food, its nutrient composition, and the influence over our taste preferences, appetite, weight and health.

Man and pregnant woman at kitchen with vegetables and fruits

Minimally processed foods

Minimally processed foods typically maintain their original nutrient composition and overall qualities. Minimal forms of processing include harvesting, washing, peeling, slicing and removing inedible parts. Freezing, drying, fermenting, and heating (such as pasteurization to kill off harmful bacteria) are other forms of minimal processing.

Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, intact whole grains, meat and milk are often sold in minimally processed forms. Sometimes minimally processed foods have vitamins or other nutrients added, such as vitamin D-enriched milk and omega 3-enriched eggs.

Highly processed foods

Highly processed and refined foods are more radically altered, often resulting in considerable nutrient, fiber and water loss. While typically lower in cost, more portable (they require little or no preparation), and more shelf-stable, they can come with several downsides: empty calories (meaning, no or minimal nutrients), higher in sugar, salt and fat; and easier to overeat because little chewing or digesting time is required.

Common additives to highly processed foods and their health consequences

Because processing removes core elements of the original food, manufacturers often add back ingredients, known as additives, which impact the texture, flavor, color and shelf life of the food item.

  • Salt and sodium: Added to increase food preservation and to maximize taste. The top sources of sodium in the American diet are bread and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry and soups. Salt is also added to a myriad of other (not as obvious) products such as sauces, marinades, dressings, pasta, cereals, and chips. The health risks of excessive sodium and salt intake include high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. (See How much salt do I need? for even more in-depth info on added salt).
  • Sugar: Added sugars offer little to no nutritional value, while increasing caloric intake and can ramp up your preference for sweets. Over time, excessive intake of added sugar can increase the risk of being overweight or obese which in turn increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, not to mention poor dental health and cavities. (See Avoiding added sugars for even more in-depth info on added sugar).
  • Refined Grains: are highly manipulated to remove the bran and germ (the part richest in dietary fiber and essential fatty acids!) to extend shelf life. At the end of the day, the refining process can strip away more than half of wheat’s B vitamins, 90 percent of the vitamin E, and virtually all of the fiber. While refined grains are often enriched or fortified to add back certain nutrients, our bodies do not seem to be nearly as successful at absorbing these added nutrients compared to the nutrients that were naturally present in the original food.
    To locate unrefined whole grains, look for the word “whole” preceding the grain on the ingredients list label (like “whole wheat” or “whole rye”). When these are the first items in the ingredient list, you know that the majority of that food is made from the whole grain. And note that amaranth, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, popcorn, sorghum, teff, triticale, quinoa and wild rice are very rarely made in processed forms and are therefore likely whole grains even if the term “whole” is not included in the ingredients.
  • Trans Fats: Manmade processed oils that are added to foods to extend shelf life and improve food texture. If you see the term “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” preceding an oil on the ingredients list label, the item contains trans fat. Consuming trans fat can increase “”bad”” LDL cholesterol. Early in 2018 The Food and Drug Administration issued a rule to remove trans fats from our food supply. The food industry was given three years to comply with this new regulation.
  • Vegetable Oils: Manufactures favor using certain vegetable oils over others to reduce overall costs. These oils, most commonly corn, soy, cottonseed, and palm, tend to be high in saturated fats, high in omega 6 fatty acids, and low in omega 3 fatty acids. Research indicates that too much saturated fat contributes to heart disease, and a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the diet can increase the predisposition to some chronic diseases.
  • Preservatives, Natural or Artificial Colorings and Flavors: Substances added to foods to boost color, flavor, texture and stability, as well as to prevent spoiling and promote resistance to bacteria. While all food additives must prove to be safe, some remain controversial. So, just keep in mind that the presence of additives in a food’s ingredient list is a good tipoff that the product is more refined.

As you walk the line between minimally processed and highly processed foods, remember this basic rule of thumb: the more heavily processed a food, the less likely it is to be nutritious.

What to Do

Most of the time, stick to fresh whole foods

Foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, unsweetened low-fat dairy, as well as fresh meat, chicken and fish make the best dietary choices, as their minimal processing yields a higher nutrient content.

Limit more highly processed food items to only occasional consumption, and when you do buy them, carefully read the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel so you can make informed choices.

To help you achieve this balance, try to prepare more foods at home. And see Family meals: modeling and enjoying healthy eating patterns to get you started.

Remember that marketing claims associated to health are not in fact nutrition advice

When purchasing packaged foods, read the ingredients list and nutrition facts panel. Keep an eye out for added salt, added sugar, refined grains, trans fats (hydrogenated oils), and natural or artificial colorings; they add no nutritional value so try to avoid when possible. Artificial coloring may appear as Blue 1, Blue 2, Caramel Coloring, Citrus Red 2, Red 3, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 or Yellow 6. Compare brands with similar products to find the best choice for your family

Read nutrition fact panels side by side to make informed decisions. Note that ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the ingredient with the highest amount.

Don’t forget about taste imprinting!

Your food choices while pregnant and breastfeeding will impact your baby’s healthy eating habits and attitude towards food for years to come. What you eat will help them develop their taste preferences and may help them be less picky eaters down the line. When you start introducing solid foods to your baby, focus on minimizing processed foods and maximizing whole foods from the beginning to get him off to a healthy start.

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