The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Advice on Eating a “Whole” Lot of Processed Foods

Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Jul 09, 2015

Mention the term ‘processed food’ to most people and you will get a very negative response. Processed food gets blamed for a number of chronic health conditions such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, and some cancers. While there is no question that some processed foods are not the best choices, we need to pause before we overgeneralize. In other words, before jumping on the ‘all processed food is bad’ bandwagon, let’s take a closer look.

The technical definition of a processed food is quite broad. Any food product that has undergone a transformation from the raw form either to extend shelf-life or to improve consumer palatability of raw commodities is considered processed. Thus, there is a wide continuum with regard as to how much processing has occurred with any food product. For example, most of us have bought bagged spinach and salads, pre-cut vegetables, or bags of pre-shelled nuts. Guess what? Those heart-healthy items are considered ‘processed’ because they have undergone a transformation from their raw form. The reduced-fat milk we buy at the grocery store has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Because of the addition of these two essential nutrients (in addition to the reduction of fat from whole milk), that’s considered processed too! What about the nutritious and fiber-rich whole grain cereal or bread that has vitamins and minerals added? Again, these are processed. Beans, vegetables, tuna, and frozen fruits that have been canned/frozen at their peak to lock in their peak nutritional value? You guessed it - processed! So, although a food may have been processed there is really no down side with the above examples, unless you consider convenience and getting additional nutrients in a food product a bad thing. (I should mention here that canned beans, vegetables, and soups typically have added sodium, which is used as a preservative. If you are watching your sodium intake, simply rinsing canned beans and vegetables will significantly reduce their sodium content.)

The examples that were listed above are considered to be minimally processed because they have only undergone minor changes from their raw form. For instance, chopped bagged spinach (processed) has the same nutrient content as the non-bagged, non-chopped variety (non-processed). Of course, there are two sides to every story. There are many food products that are heavily processed; these are the ones that we need to consume much less often. More heavily processed foods often contain added sugars, sodium, trans (hydrogenated) fat, and nitrites. While carbohydrate foods may first come to mind when people think about heavily processed foods; there are examples found in all foods. Some protein foods at the less-healthy end of the processed foods continuum include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, bologna, and pastrami. Not only are these meats full of sodium and saturated fat, but when cooked at high temperatures they produce chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs have been linked to increased cancer risk in a number of animal studies. Furthermore, nitrites are commonly used as a preservative in these meats. Nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines, which are also carcinogenic according to the American Cancer Society.

The take-home message is that you shouldn’t strive to eliminate all processed foods from your diet – simply reduce the foods that have been highly processed. In fact, an increased intake of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans (either in a whole state or minimally processed state) is strongly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. If good health is your goal, then looking at the “whole” (and/or minimally processed) picture is a very good idea.


To learn more about nutrition to benefit yourself or others, consider taking the Nutrition for Health and Fitness course (offered online or live) and/or the Sports Nutrition course.



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