What does it mean to avoid processed foods?

In my last post I talked about eating real foods, and slowly crowding out the processed foods. But what does it mean to avoid processed foods? I often think of avoiding processed foods as synonymous with avoiding foods that come from a package. But the reality is that for most of us, most of our food is still going to come in a package, including good, wholesome, real food. So if you are trying to avoid “processed foods,” how do you discern from the different packages to still choose good, wholesome, real, food? And how do you find your metric – how much processing is okay in the name of convenience, or when should you make a different choice? Here are 3 things to be on the lookout for:

1. The number of ingredients. 

Packaged products with just one or two ingredients are unlikely to be very processed if at all. And if those are good, high quality ingredients, you are probably going to be making a good choice.

Examples of good, real foods that can be found in a package: vegetables & fruits (fresh or frozen), raw nuts, quinoa, steel cut oats.

As ingredients are added, the products are probably going to be getting worse for you.

2. Ingredients that are foreign to you. 

Some good, whole, and real foods have a number of ingredients, so that rule of thumb doesn’t always work. I pulled the kimchi out of my refrigerator and here is the ingredient list: organic cabbage, organic kale, organic carrots, organic radish, organic onion, organic garlic, organic ginger, organic cane sugar, sea salt, organic red pepper powder and organic paprika powder, water. That is a long list, but I still consider this to be a good, real food option.While chopped and prepared by someone else, these ingredients are still all recognizable and I understand why each ingredient is included.

But if you don’t know what an ingredient is and why it’s in the product, then I recommend you either avoid it or do your research before consuming it. Take yogurt as an example. I recommend plain, whole milk yogurt. The container in my refrigerator contains cultured pasteurized grade A milk, cream, and pectin. The same brand also makes a plain, nonfat yogurt. It contains the same number of ingredients: cultured pasteurized grade A nonfat milk, inulin, and pectin. It turns out that inulin is a soluble fiber that is added to the yogurt to create a similar ‘mouth feel’ to fat. Thus, while these two yogurt products have the same ingredients, I would consider the fat free yogurt to be more processed (and coincidentally also worse for you) because the manufacturing company must add something into the product to give it the similar qualities of the more natural product. Now the nonfat may still be an okay choice for you, but I think it is important to at least know what you are getting. Inulin is not digestible in our small intestine. There is some debate about whether it is good for our gut bacteria and therefore beneficial for us; but for some people it can cause pretty bad digestive issues. So it may work for you, but if you are eating it and start having digestive problems, then consider avoiding it and seeing if those problems clear up.

I haven’t even touched on the preservatives and additives that really truly have no benefit to you. But simply put, if you don’t recognize it, leave it on the shelf or look it up.

3. How much processing was done to the food. 

You can buy rice as a single ingredient package, but different types of rice have undergone different levels of processing before being packaged and sold on the supermarket shelf. Being aware of the level of processing can give you insight into what choice you want to make. After being harvested, rice is dried, and then the outer hull of the grain is removed. At this stage, you have what we buy as brown rice. To make white rice, the rice is further processed to remove the outer bran layer; and processors often then polish the rice with a brush machine and then coat it with glucose to increase the luster of the grains. Sometimes those grains are then enriched to add some of the vitamins and minerals back into the rice that had been stripped during the milling process (removing the outer bran). Packages will say “enriched rice” when vitamins and minerals are added back in, but there will be nothing on the package to indicate the brushing and glucose coating done to white rice. With this knowledge, it is clear that brown rice is the best option if you want to eat ‘realer food.’

Flour is another example of a product that is sold as a single ingredient, but has undergone tremendous processing.

And any food that has been pre-cooked I would consider processed, but it will be processed to different levels. Buying canned beans for example is buying a pre-cooked product. You save a ton of time (and also spend more) than buying dry beans. But so long as the can only contains beans and water, this is a level of convenience that I personally choose fairly often. Consider additives that may have come in during the pre-cooking process, as well as a realistic assessment of what else you would be eating if you don’t choose the pre-cooked option.

4. Does it belong there? 

Sometimes there are ingredients that you know the name of, you can pronounce it, and it is one of only two ingredients…but it still doesn’t belong in the product. A common example are canned beans, tomatoes, and tomato sauces with sugar added. There is no health reason to consume sugar with a canned legume or vegetable, and you can usually find the same type of product without the sugar on the same part of the shelf.


How much processing and pre-prepared foods we choose to eat will depend on a variety of factors including time allowed, budget, and our priorities. But to make those choices, we need to first be able to distinguish between real food and fake foods. That is not a clear black/white line. Here, I have explored that area between what is clearly real and clearly fake. Does this help you think about real food vs. processed food in a different light? Does it raise questions for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


2 thoughts on “What does it mean to avoid processed foods?

  1. Dairy and meat can also be bad for you as they contain an unbearable number of antibiotics and other chemicals fed to the animals. Luckily, there are plenty of plant based alternatives which are good for you, for the environment and nobody gets killed or enslaved. Here in Asia for example, you can find plant based chicken, prawns and fish that are so similar to their original counterparts that a few times I found myself asking the chef if they were sure the products were plant based. If you want to travel to Asia to enjoy some of the healthiest plant based food in the world, I suggest George Town in Malaysia or Hat Yai in Thailand (almost everywhere in Thailand actually). Many people also suggest Taipei in Taiwan as the heart of plant based food! 😋


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