The term “processed foods” is usually equated to "bad foods," and many consumers try to avoid them at all costs. But this isn’t necessarily true. There are a few different levels of processed food, and some of them are actually good for you.

What do we mean when we say “processed foods?" Processed food is food that has had anything done to it to change its original form: anything from pre-slicing an apple to adding potentially harmful chemicals.

Examples of healthy processed foods. (Source: Obesity Help)Examples of healthy processed foods. (Source: Obesity Help)

There are four generally agreed upon levels of food processing. The first level includes minimally processed foods. These are foods that have the least amount of processing done to them. Foods in this category include washed and packaged fruits and vegetables, bagged salads, roasted nuts and ground coffee beans. The next level are foods that are processed to keep their freshness. Foods in this category include canned tuna, canned beans, canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables, and canned or jarred baby foods. These two categories affect the food least and are usually healthy.

A basket of the dreaded unhealthy processed foods. (Source: Bariatric Cookery)A basket of the dreaded unhealthy processed foods. (Source: Bariatric Cookery)

The next two categories are more harmful to nutrition. Some processed foods combine ingredients to improve safety, taste or visual appeal. Instant potato mix, rice, cake mix, jarred tomato sauce, spice mix, dressings, sauce and gelatin are some examples of this level of processed food. The final type of processed food is ready-to-eat food, and these involve the most processing. Foods in this category include breakfast foods, flavored oatmeal, crackers, jams, jellies, nut butter, ice cream, yogurt, garlic bread, granola, deli meats and cookies. This category also includes foods that are packaged to stay fresh and save the consumer time, like prepared foods, frozen meals, pot pies and frozen pizzas. These often have little nutritional value.

The degree of food processing varies widely. Nutritionists recommend that people avoid the last two categories of processing as much as possible. With pre-prepared, mixed or frozen foods the good nutrients are often taken out and sodium, sugars and trans fats are added. While these are okay in moderation, eating these processed foods every day for most meals is not good for you.

There are a few things to look out for when determining if a food is overly processed or not. First of all, try to avoid prepackaged or frozen meals. These meals may be convenient, but they have a lot of additives that make them unhealthy. Reading food packaging before purchasing is an important step to take. Watch out for hidden sugar, sodium and fats.

An example of a nutrition label (Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) An example of a nutrition label (Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)

Added sugars are in most heavily processed foods, not just sweets. Sugars are added to bread to give it a brown color. Jarred sauces and cereal often have added sugars. Even supposedly healthy foods like reduced-fat and fat-free foods have added sugar for improved taste and consistency. Choose foods that have more protein and fiber and less saturated fats and sugars. Read a product’s ingredients list and look out for added sugar.

Most canned vegetables, soups and sauces often have a lot of added salt. The recommended amount of salt is 2,300 milligrams a day. Some ready-to-eat or frozen meals contain this amount of salt in one serving. Reading nutrition labels will help you stay away from these high-salt foods.

Food companies often add fats to food because it makes it shelf-stable and gives it body. Doctors say to avoid trans fats, but this is difficult because they are a popular ingredient in processed

An example of a typical ingredients list. (Source: Healthy Crush)An example of a typical ingredients list. (Source: Healthy Crush)

foods. The FDA has banned artificial trans fats from foods. But companies have until 2018 to comply, so there are still plenty of foods with added trans fats. Also, pay attention to the nutrition facts label and ingredients list. A healthy food will have zero grams of trans fats and there will be no partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredients list.

Processed foods are not as evil as people believe they are. There are plenty of processed foods that are not great for you. But the sliced apples you have with your lunch or the ground coffee you drink in the morning are good processed foods. When trying to eat healthily it is important to stay aware of what to look for, and take the time to read the labels on food before adding them to your basket.