You've probably gone grocery shopping and wondered whether or not you should buy that bag of chips, your favorite can of Spam, deviled ham or even a boxed macaroni. Processed food is found nearly everywhere you go, and while they do get a bad reputation for their high sugar content, salt and all around "fakeness," many people just can't seem to stay away from them. And, truthfully, not all of them are as bad as we think they are.

Processed foods get a lot of flack these days because they are touted to be depleted of nutritional value. But what exactly makes a processed food "processed," and are they all as bad as we make them out to be? Here we will take a look at exactly what makes up a processed food, its nutritional value and which ones you should avoid at all costs and those which are healthy and full of vitamins, minerals, and flavor.

What Is Processed Food?

A grocery store aisle

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food is any food that has been changed in some shape or form prior to consumption. Though we typically think of processed food as being laden with chemicals or any other unsavory ingredients, not all processed foods are created equal, both in how they are made and their nutritional value.

Processed foods can be cooked, canned, jarred, packaged, frozen, fortified with ingredients, vitamins, and minerals for our benefit, or depleted of elements that don't serve us at all. In fact, processed food is so prevalent, that if you aren't eating something raw, you are processing the food because, technically, cooking and baking is a process that changed the chemical and physical structure of the food. At any rate, unless you are on a strictly raw diet, it is quite difficult to avoid process food.

There are also varying levels of processed foods. While some foods are minimally prepared, some are changed so much so that the food is completely different than what it was in its original form. Processed foods are eaten all around the world, and though some are much healthier than others, it is a very important staple in helping to preserve and maintain the freshness of many of your favorite foods. Some forms of processed foods include:

  • Minimally processed foods: Those that are stored in bags to be sold frozen at grocery stores, such as frozen fruits and vegetables. These foods are often not depleted of nutritional quality. In fact, studies show that frozen vegetables very similar nutritional content as raw vegetables picked at their peak.
  • Canned foods: Foods such as fruits, vegetables, and tuna that are preserved to lock in flavor and freshness.
  • Added Ingredients: Foods that are infused with ingredients to enhance flavor, nutritional value, and texture, such as sauces, dressings, condiments and other jarred foods.
  • Ready-to-eat: Boxed foods, such as crackers, granola, cereals, deli meat, and cheeses are typically heavily processed with added ingredients for taste and freshness.
  • Heavily processed foods: Such as frozen pizza and other meals that can be microwaved for consumption. These types of meals typically contain a substantial amount of sodium.

Other methods, such as the addition of GMO's, aren't necessarily bad for you and produce better flavor and superior quality in produce, despite popular belief. Genetically engineered foods are produced to provide more flavor with longer-lasting freshness, which also helps to deter herbicides, insects, and toxins, but generally, people are still a bit skeptical of this practice.

While processed foods are convenient, it's also important to be mindful of other more harmful ingredients that can creep up in them in order to avoid unnecessary sugars, fats, and salts that can have detrimental effects on your health if consumed in large quantities.

Processed Foods To Avoid

An open bag of potato chips

While there is an abundance of healthy foods that are processed, unfortunately, there is also a very large quantity of processed foods that aren't so healthy. Sugary juices and sodas; most TV dinners; and pre-packaged potato chips, cakes, donuts, and candies are all examples of foods that, while they may use ingredients that are derived from natural fruits and vegetables, have been processed in such a way that these ingredients have become watered down, and what ends up in the final product is rendered very little in nutritional value. Additionally, heavily processed foods tend to have a large number of additives, preservatives, and other chemicals that bring the taste, but have little to offer if you are seeking to are trying to maintain a healthy diet.

Heavily processed foods are also typically high in sodium, trans-fat, and are often cooked in animal fat, which can lead to obesity -- just a few reasons to avoid these types of food at all costs, or to eat them very sparsely.

Furthermore, there are some ingredients that are listed on food packages that are either hidden or worded differently to persuade the consumer to purchase, such as dextrose, sucralose or fructose for sugar; or MSG or disodium inosinate for salt. Such ingredients are often derivatives of the real thing, but with no added health value. Some processed foods to avoid include:

  • Bacon: Contains a high sodium content.
  • Instant ramen: High salt content, which can lead to high blood pressure.
  • Dried fruit: Though they contain a high content of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, the added sugar can really pile up, which can lead to weight gain.
  • *Flavored nuts: *Typically coated with artificial ingredients for flavor, as well as an ample amount of sugar and sodium.
  • *Margarine: *Contains a substantial amount of trans-fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
  • Ketchup: Due to its high amount of sugar, most ketchup should be avoided or used as minimally as possible.

Processed Foods That Are Healthier Than Most

A pile of frozen string beans

While the degree of processing in foods correlates to its health, there is still a widely public opinion that processed food is "bad." However, some processed foods are actually quite healthy and shouldn't be avoided. The notion that all processed foods are to be avoided at all costs can prove to be a disservice, especially when it comes to efficiency.

Frozen produce such as string beans, broccoli, strawberries, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables are full of dietary value and are just as healthy as fresh produce. However, as aforementioned, when it comes to pre-packaged frozen meals, keep an eye on the listed ingredients for added sodium and sugars. As with non-processed foods, choosing high-quality ingredients is the key to maintaining a more balanced diet. Seek foods that contain as many ingredients as possible with very minimal synthetic ingredients. On the occasion that you wish to purchase something to satisfy your sweet or salty craving, go for low sodium, low sugar varieties that contain beneficial ingredients. Some healthy processed foods that is beneficial for your health include:

  • Yogurt: High in calcium and aids digestion.
  • Tomato sauce: Rich in lycopene, which helps reduce some cancers.
  • Sauerkraut: Promotes healthy digestion and boosts the immune system.
  • Canned beans: Canned beans typically contain high amounts of salt, but can easily be rinsed away to provide an adequate amount of protein and healthy fat.
  • Unsweetened Almond milk: Abundant in vitamin D and rich in calcium.

Additional Sneaky Ingredients To Avoid

avocados, asparagus and tomatoes

Though some ingredients claim to be healthy, sometimes they are toxic, so know your food and what it contains. While you're scanning the food labels for hidden sodium and sugars, it's important to keep an eye out for other, sneakier ingredients that can be found in processed food as well. It's always important to read the food labels each time you make your purchase to avoid unhealthy elements in your food. Some other ingredients to watch out for are:

  • Palm oil: Contains hydrogen, which turns to a solid when cooled and can clog your arteries.
  • Shortening: Increases your risk for high blood pressure.
  • White rice: Contains less fiber than brown rice, since it's been stripped down, which can lead to elevated insulin.
  • High fructose corn syrup: Increases triglycerides and causes over-eating.
  • Sodium benzoate: Found in bacon, lunch meat, and hot dogs. Can lead to colon cancer and diabetes.
  • Food coloring: Can lead to thyroid, adrenal, bladder and kidney cancer.

Processed foods can be very beneficial to our overall health and are useful when we are short on time. However, if you are not careful, it can have more adverse effects than advantages. Keep these important tips in mind when you decide to purchase your food items.

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