Probably not what you think
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say they’re avoiding “processed foods,” I’d be rich enough to buy adaptogens in bulk. As people become more collectively obsessed with foods labeled “natural,” “organic,” and, shudder, “healthy,” the desire for “unprocessed” items is also on the rise. The thing is, just because something is processed doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. In fact, if you ate oatmeal this morning, your breakfast involved processed food.
According to the International Food Information Council, “food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat,” making for an extremely expansive genre of edible products. The IFIC notes that processing can mean performing a simple change to an ingredient, such as cooking or freezing it, yet the term can also apply to something like formulating a frozen meal with the right balance of nutrients and ingredients. Because of this definition, it can be argued that processed food has existed for millions of years, dating back to when the first humans found that fire applied to ingredients changed the way the food behaved and tasted. From there, drying, fermenting, and preserving with salt came into practical use, all of which are methods of processing fresh food to protect it from spoilage.
Processed foods are an important part of the modern grocery store, as the majority of items we buy every day have to be processed in some way in order to stay fresh on the shelf. From foods that require little or no production (like pre-washed lettuce and ground coffee beans), to foods that have been mixed with flavorings, oils, or preservatives to improve flavor (like canned beans or cake mix), to ready-to-eat foods (like rotisserie chickens, packaged cheese, and cookies), these items are all classified as “processed foods.”
Processing can also be a way to fortify items with nutrients. For example, the riboflavin in your cereal and calcium in orange juice are not naturally occurring, those nutrients were added to the product during processing.
There are of course, higher levels of food processing that many people have started to fear. Items like snack chips and cakes, and fast food are all highly processed items. These foods tend to be prepared with significantly more preservatives and additives than, say, a loaf of fresh sourdough bread, in order to preserve quality and flavor.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with processed food—even that almond milk you make from scratch could technically count as processed. Buy fresh or canned foods when it comes to produce and legumes, and keep an eye on the nutrition facts of packaged foods for items lower in sodium and trans fats.