What Is Processed Food?

by Tiffany Naticchioni, RDN, LD

Last Updated: January 11, 2020

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘processed food’? Often, we identify these foods as ‘junk’ foods or unhealthy choices. But some processed foods have a place in a healthy diet. Here’s why:

Let’s break down what processed truly means. A processed food is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to alteration from its natural state, meaning the food has undergone anything from washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, to heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, or even freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, or packaging. Food additives or substances approved for use in food products like sugar, salt, fats, preservatives, flavors, and nutrients indicate the food item is processed. What does this mean for using processed foods and eating for health?

Eating processed foods is not always unhealthy for you when you follow a balanced diet regularly. We recommend using all five food groups for meals and snacks. Here's a great visual of what healthy eating looks like while using MyPlate.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics classifies levels of processing as follows, starting with the least processed to the most processed:
  • Minimally processed foods - are simple to prepare for convenience. Examples include produce items like portable fruit, chopped vegetables, and bagged spinach. Roasted nuts and seeds are minimally processed as well.
  • Foods processed at their peak - think of the canned or frozen goods which lock in nutritional quality and freshness. Examples include canned and frozen fruit & vegetables or canned meats/fish.

    Tip: When selecting canned or frozen foods, be sure to look for those with no added sugar or salt.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture - think of the foods you add to your salad, entrée, or side items. Examples include sweeteners, spices, oils, colors, and preservatives in foods like jarred sauces, salad dressings, and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat pantry or cold foods - are packaged foods that you can grab off the shelf, such as crackers and granola. Foods like deli meat are more processed.

    Tip: Use whole grain or reduced-fat options when selecting pantry items. Reach for reduced-sodium deli options as well.
  • The most heavily processed foods - think of the hot and ready to eat foods that are often pre-made meals such as restaurant foods. Examples include frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

    Tip: When eating these foods, plan ahead by adding your own side of fruit or vegetable.

Simply managing how frequently you are eating heavily processed foods can reduce additives and extra calories from saturated fat and added sugars. We recommend increasing your intake of minimally processed foods by preparing fresh, frozen, canned, or dried foods in advance and placing them in convenient storage containers so that they are ready to eat when you are. Likewise, cooking your meals in advance can help you maintain control over what is in your food and help you manage the portion size. This can help you include more nutrient-dense foods into your diet, which can help you feel fuller longer between meals, potentially reducing overeating at or between meals. Eating a balanced diet lower in highly processed foods can help prevent diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. This might be easier said than done, but we have just the resource you need. A registered dietitian can help facilitate behavior changes that lead to healthier eating and a more active, and healthy lifestyle. For more information on managing your diet, schedule an appointment with your Kroger Health Registered Dietitian at www.krogerhealth.com/telenutrition.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.


Tiffany Naticchioni, RDN, LD

Tiffany Naticchioni, RDN, LD

Tiffany is a compassionate dietitian with experience in nutrition throughout her lifespan along with empowering those with diabetes and heart disease to use food as medicine. A believer in total body wellness, she has a decade of experience as a licensed massage therapist. With a passion for healthy living, she practices hot yoga, enjoys most any fitness activities, stays active in the community, and loves spending time with her family.