Processed foods have never been more prevalent in our diets than they are today. In fact, a recent analysis published in the medical journal, JAMA, found that children and teens in the U.S. now get more than two-thirds of their calories from what are known as “ultra-processed” foods.
Wait, what’s the difference between processed and ultra-processed? And how did these foods come to represent such a large portion of our diets?
Defining Processed Foods
“Think of a processed food as something that is changed from its original form as it grew in the ground,” explains One Drop coach Hanna, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
You probably already know that potato chips, for example, are a processed food: They start in the ground as potatoes before being deep-fried in oil, heavily salted, and packaged in a factory. But “processed” can refer to mechanical manipulation of food (think: chopping a whole apple into slices) as well, or it can even mean fermentation, pasteurization, cooling, and freezing, explains Nora Saul, CDCES and registered dietitian (RD).
In other words, if you took those fresh potatoes from the ground and simply washed, peeled, and chopped them, technically they’d still be considered “minimally processed.” But once you throw oil, fat, salt, sugar, and other additives into the mix, that’s when food becomes “processed.” Other common processed foods include cured meats (including vegan meat alternatives), fortified milk, and canned beans.
So, what makes food “ultra-processed” rather than processed? “Ultra-processed foods are mostly created from food components and synthetics made in laboratories,” rather than from natural, whole-food sources, explains Saul. “Most packaged dessert and snack foods, as well as cereals and frozen dinners, are ultra-processed.” Another giveaway: They usually have abnormally long shelf lives and don’t “go bad” easily.
Are All Processed Foods “Bad” for You?
Considering diced onions are technically a processed food, clearly not all processed foods are harmful to your health. And in some cases, processed foods have had extra nutrients added, which you may see on the label as fortified vitamins and minerals.
Generally speaking, though, processed foods are usually higher in calories and salt, and sometimes lower in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, says Hanna. For example, whole wheat grows in the ground (unprocessed) and is made into crackers (processed) in a factory. “When the cracker is being made, the fiber in the whole wheat is often discarded, and vitamins and minerals are either destroyed or discarded,” she explains. “All that’s left in the cracker is the starch from the whole wheat.”
It’s not that starch is “bad” for you, continues Hanna, but without fiber, vitamins, and minerals, those crackers will digest in the body more quickly. “Quick digestion can result in higher blood sugars, which can have negative short- and long-term effects,” she explains.
Short-Term Effects of Processed Foods
In the immediate short-term, explains Saul, processed foods do what they’re intended to do: They make food last longer and taste really good at really accessible, affordable prices. “Since most of these foods are high in sugar and easily digestible, causing an insulin spike, they provide quick energy, but no staying power,” says Saul.
Meaning, you’ll probably keep reaching for more snacks after eating processed food because, thanks to how quickly they’re digested, they typically won’t leave you feeling full for very long.
“If it doesn’t keep you full for very long, this may affect your mood,” adds Hanna.
Long-Term Effects of Processed Foods
When eaten in excess, processed foods that contain a lot of carbohydrates can cause the pancreas to secrete more and more insulin, sometimes until the point where the pancreas gets so worn out that it begins to produce less insulin, says One Drop coach Melinda Washington, RDN, CDCES. “When the pancreas isn’t able to produce enough insulin needed to convert sugar in the bloodstream into energy, sugar remains in the bloodstream,” she explains. “Excess sugar creates a sluggish, thick blood flow to the circulatory system throughout the body. As a result, blood pressure increases, which can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.” And, over time, as sugar lingers in the bloodstream and the pancreas struggles more and more to produce insulin, blood sugar also rises, increasing the risk of diabetes.
Excess sugar can also leave your heart unable to pump blood to the furthest parts of the body (toes and fingers), continues Washington. As a result, the cells in those parts of the body may lose nutrients and oxygen, potentially leading to cell death, including nerve cells—a condition known as neuropathy.
More sugar in the blood can also lead to an increase in triglycerides, a type of fat found in your blood. “Triglycerides can harden the blood vessels (arteriosclerosis) and weaken the heart,” explains Washington.
“The kidneys are responsible for filtering the blood as well,” she adds. “High sugar in the blood can cause the kidneys to decrease in function (e.g., kidney disease).” Even the small blood vessels in your eyes can become damaged as a result of too much sugar in the blood, potentially causing loss of sight.
There’s also research suggesting that, over time, processed foods can damage gut health, which may affect not only digestion long-term, but mood as well. “A majority of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects emotions and mood) receptors are located in the gut,” explains Saul. “Studies have shown associations between those eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods and higher rates of depression.”
Healthy Ways to Eat Processed Foods
As harmful as processed foods can be to your health, they represent just one of many factors that can affect your risk of a chronic condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure. In reality, everything from family history to age—factors you can’t even control—may affect your chances of developing these types of health issues.
As for processed foods, your body may not be able to handle a high intake, but the truth is, “it would be difficult and not necessarily recommended” to completely avoid them, says Brittany Lubeck, a registered dietitian (RD) based in Colorado, noting that they are convenient and enjoyable for certain occasions. “However, finding a balance of processed versus unprocessed or minimally processed foods in your diet would be ideal,” she adds.
First, Hanna suggests making a list of all the foods you regularly eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between. Then, categorize them into processed and unprocessed foods. Not quite sure how to classify a specific food? Reach out to your One Drop coach, who can help clarify.
Then, continues Hanna, consider how you might increase the amount of unprocessed foods you eat, and reduce the number of processed ones. Ask yourself: How important are these processed foods to my everyday routines and happiness?
These changes don’t need to happen overnight, but little steps can go a long way. Here’s how to get started:
- Make healthy swaps instead of eliminating what you love. “Think about your favorite processed food, and ask yourself if you can enjoy it in its original form,” suggests Hanna. For instance, if you love starting your day with a glass of orange juice, try switching to a whole orange and a glass of water instead. Or, in lieu of cereal, have a bowl of oats topped with nuts, fresh fruit, and milk. For those who regularly crave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, compromise with an open-faced sandwich (one slice of bread instead of two) of peanut butter and sliced strawberries instead of strawberry jelly (which is usually packed with added sugar). Bottom line: It’s not necessarily about restricting or taking away what you enjoy, but rather finding new, healthier ways to have what you already love.
- Include healthy add-ons when you do eat processed food. Again, it’s unrealistic to say that you’ll never eat processed foods. So, when you do, keep moderation in mind, and consider what you can add—rather than take away—to make the meal just a little bit healthier. “Pick one meal that’s higher in processed foods, and focus on adding a food (or multiple foods) that's less processed to that meal,” suggests One Drop coach Amy Crees, RDN. For example, if you’re baking boxed macaroni and cheese, mix in some broccoli for a few extra nutrients. Or, if you’re craving a fruit-flavored yogurt, add real, whole pieces of fruit to a plain, sugar-free yogurt instead of buying a fruity one.
- Pay attention to ingredient lists. “A long ingredient list is usually a sign of highly processed food,” says Washington. Take peanut butter, for example. A minimally processed peanut butter will likely only show peanuts and possibly salt on the ingredient list. But a more processed peanut butter may include ingredients such as molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (“hydrogenated” typically indicates the presence of trans fats), and mono and diglycerides (food additives). Other common red-flag ingredients include hydrolyzed proteins, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, and dextrose. Another way to spot a processed food: If it’s not something you can reach for in the cupboard and cook with, it’s probably processed.
- Know where to go in the grocery store. “When grocery shopping, aim to shop around the perimeter, or outer walls, of the grocery store,” suggests Megan Wong, RD. “This is where you’ll typically find whole, minimally processed foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs,” while the middle aisles are usually packed with processed foods. Another budget-friendly tip: Try to stick to buying in-season produce, which is often sold at a lower price.
- Make cooking easier with semi-prepared ingredients. It’s easy to fall into a habit of eating a lot of processed foods because, well, they’re easy to eat—zero prep involved, right? Try to make eating fresh whole foods just as convenient in any way you can: Pick up pre-diced peppers for that omelette you want to make instead of chopping them yourself. Keep frozen fruits and veggies in the freezer instead of letting fresh produce go bad on your counter every week. These little steps will take a lot of time out of cooking and help you avoid the addition of flavor enhancers, additives, sugars, salt, and fats, says Saul.
- Pre-game the menu before eating out at a restaurant. Most restaurants have their menus available online, so check out the options ahead of time to avoid making hasty food choices when it’s time to order. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask if you can substitute that side of fries for a bowl of steamed broccoli.
- Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” regardless of whether they’re processed. Processed foods may have some long-term health consequences, but categorizing foods as wholly “good” or “bad” isn’t necessarily the healthiest way to approach nutrition in general. In fact, doing so can associate guilt and shame with the “bad” foods, which can lead to unnecessary restriction, leaving you feeling deprived and potentially increasing the risk of binging or disordered eating habits, explains Lubeck. If you regularly crave things like cookies or chips, work with your One Drop coach on a long-term strategy for managing those cravings and improving your overall relationship with food. Coaches can walk you through healthy cooking tips, recipes, stress management skills, supportive resources, and much more.
If you have diabetes, consider checking your blood sugar before and after trying any new foods to better understand how they impact your health. If you have any questions, reach out to your One Drop coach.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Rachel Head, MPH, RDN, CDCES, clinical operations manager at One Drop.