Thursday Thoughts: Processed

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or just missed the past few Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate overgeneralizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

Last week I shared my thoughts on the term natural.  Along those lines is the term processed.  I hear a lot of people saying they do not want processed food, they want whole foods, and that people should avoid things that are processed, or made other than by them.

What exactly does the FDA consider processed: The term "processed food" means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.  

This definition really does imply anything other than a whole food not in it's original form.  So, are all processed foods bad and should we use processed as a term with a negative connotation? 

Let's take a look at some things to consider: 

1) While many of us think of processed as "junk" foods and things that are unhealthy, there are many other foods out there that should not be avoided because they are processed.  If you think about it from a science perspective, processed foods have undergone a change that makes them different from their original form.  Some foods should be processed, and should not be consumed without that processing.  For example, eggs and meat.  Without cooking them, we risk food borne illness.  When we cook these foods, we denature proteins (with exposure to heat), and this is now a processed food.  I would not consider a piece of grilled fish to be unhealthy, yet it is a processed food.

2) I would consider roasted nuts and dried fruit to be healthy in appropriate amounts.  I even like tofu and eat it more than once a month.  These foods are processed.  They are quite different from the picture that is painted by many people who claim processed foods are bad.  I am sure that you can think of a few other foods that fit this description, that are processed, but you would still consider healthy.

3) The FDA goes into further detail: FDA and EPA have agreed that the following post-harvest activities do not constitute processing, and that food subjected to these activities would not be considered processed food: washing, coloring, waxing, hydro-cooling, refrigeration, shelling of nuts, ginning of cotton, and the removal of leaves, stems, and husks. FDA and EPA have agreed that the following activities constitute processing and that any food subjected to these activities becomes a "processed food," (within the meaning of that term in 40 CFR 152.5): canning, freezing, cooking, pasteurization or homogenization, irradiation, milling, grinding, chopping, slicing, cutting, or peeling. Reference

Now even slicing, cutting and peeling become factors and are considered a form of processing.  This is not a clear term used on the label and I can't even find if there is a definition for labeling reasons, meaning that even with a set definition used by the FDA, it may not extend to a clear use on a food package.  I can't recall ever seeing the term used on a food, but if it has a food label, it is most likely a processed food, even the "healthy" ones.  An example of this would be frozen vegetables.  For the most part these are just as healthy, and in some cases higher in nutrients than fresh vegetables, but according to the FDA definition, these are also processed.  It truly seems that only whole foods, still intact, the way they are found in nature, are the only non-processed foods.

4) Of course I know what people are referring to when they say they do not eat processed foods. Almost all of the time they are referring to foods they deem unhealthy, like "junk" foods.  These are sweets and fried foods, frozen dinners high in sodium, and possibly other foods that are cooked anywhere other than our own kitchen.  But, is it safe to assume everyone is using this as the definition?  Can or should we generalize that when some (in my case a patient or client) uses this term, it means the same thing to them as it means to me, or not even me, but the general media used definition of those "junk" foods?  It is a stretch to think everyone means the same thing, but since this is how the term is most commonly used in the media, this is the term I assume when I hear someone use it.  In my personal opinion, what they really mean is that they avoid highly processed foods.  Those are the ones that have lots of preservatives (not all of which are bad for you), were mass produced on a conveyor belt, have to "bend" the truth on their labels, and often add fat, sugar or salt to give an overpowering taste because the product may be designed to last for a while in the freezer or on the shelf.  Actually, not all of those products may be bad for you either, if you can practice consumption of these foods in moderation.  In the end, I stick to calling these overly processed or highly processed foods because they are processed in a way that exceeds the necessary amounts to produce a food dish (in my opinion).

5) My last point is based on a comment I once read, and I apologize that I do not have the link or know the author, but it was an RD who was writing, I believe on this topic, and mentioned that no food should ever be made in the lab.  My first thought was "What? Nothing made in a lab?  Heck, my kitchen is a lab and I am proud to experiment."  Just because something is made in a "lab" or a factory does not automatically make it bad for you.  Many of the minimally processed foods we can buy at the store can just as easily be made or processed at home, but sometimes time really is a factor and therefore buying these products is not the end of the world.  I am happy to cook in my kitchen and process foods, and even use processed foods.  I bought raisins today for a dish I am planning to cook, and these are processed.  Any meal you cook at home is in fact processed. Since this is true, unless you are eating whole foods, intact, and not mixed together, the term processed should not be overused in the negative context that it has been recently.

So, to conclude my thoughts on this topic, I think that the term is overused, misused, and as always, the media is searching for a fad or scapegoat for the poor dietary habits of some Americans.  I personally think that overly processed and minimally processed would be better depictions of reality when it comes to these foods.  Limiting those highly processed foods is certainly a good idea, especially for good health, but there is no need to eliminate all processed foods, because some are good for you.  Cutting all of these out could wind up leading to nutritional deficiencies.  As always, balance, moderation and variety are key to a healthy diet...and processed foods can be a part too.


Ameena said...

You bring up interesting points!

I never considered my kitchen a lab before but I guess in a way it is...but my real issue is with eating things that aren't in their original (or very close to their original) state.

I personally consider tofu processed and unhealthy (mostly because I think processed soy isn't good for people) but I never thought of candied or roasted nuts as processed before.

I'll be thinking about this for the better part of the day. :) Great post!!

Emily said...

I think the term "processed" is just as confusing as "clean eating." It's important to define what processed means when writing about the topic and also to ask your patients/clients for their personal definition of processed.

Great post!

Simply Life said...

great post! I'm all about everything in moderation!

sophia said...


....I used to scream. Everything was so black and white for me back then when I was a health freak. I loved your thoughts on this subject. Once again, you bring forth shades of grey that many people may miss.

Gina; The Candid RD said...

Great post MElinda (I love these!!). HAve you read Omnivore's Dilemma yet? I gotta tell you, after reading this book I am MAD at the food industry! But at the same time, I consider my own kitchen a "lab" of sorts too, but much different than taking some crappy corn and separating it into a million pieces, all which will be going to a new location for a new purpose. (yeah, the book talks all about this). I have always been one of those RDs who is not so conservative wher eI refuse to eat anything that has been "processed" or "cut, sliced, whatever". If I were, I would go crazy, and so would my clients who are pressed with time. I buy frozen fruits and veggies ALL the time!! I couldn't live without them. Obviously fresh has benefits in itself, but there is a huge difference between frozen veggies (plain) and frozen meals (covered with sauces and preservatives). The word "processed" simply gets a bad rep because of all of the overly-processed foods out there that give the word a bad name. You know?? GREAT POST!

Special K said...

You are so true...I experiment all the time in my lab...just check out my jelly...and I eat processed foods: I eat cereal every single day. That is completely processed. I saw a show once on making your own bran flakes and was like....HOLY COW!

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