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Healthy Food vs. Highly Processed Food: What to Know

You’ve probably heard that it’s best to reduce your intake of “highly processed foods” in order to live your healthiest life.

While this is true, many people are confused as to what makes a food or beverage “highly processed” and why eating too many of these items may cause problems.

This article explains the differences between healthy foods and highly processed foods and why it’s best to consume highly processed foods only occasionally.

What are highly processed foods?

Nearly all foods are processed, at least to some extent. For example, manufacturers process dried beans to make them shelf-stable. This does not make them less healthy.

So, before we get into what makes a food highly processed, it’s important to understand that foods aren’t “unhealthy” just because they’re processed in some way

Here are some common examples of ultra-processed foods:

sugary beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and fruit punch

sweet or savory packaged snacks such as chips and cookies

sweetened breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sweetened oatmeals

baking mixes such as stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes

reconstituted meat products such as hot dogs and fish sticks

frozen meals such as pizza and TV dinners

powdered and packaged instant soups

candies and other confectionery

packaged breads and buns

energy and protein bars and shakes

meal replacement shakes and powders meant for weight loss

boxed pasta products

ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and cocoa mixes

margarine and other ultra-processed spreads such as sweetened cream cheese

Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Many other foods and ingredients are also considered ultra-processed.

What are considered healthy foods?

In general, fresh vegetables, fruits, pasteurized milk, chicken, fish, beans, and eggs are considered unprocessed or minimally processed.

This is because these foods go through no or minimal processing before you buy them or harvest them yourself.

We commonly refer to these foods as “whole foods” because they are in their original, whole form or very close to it.

Here are some examples of healthy, whole foods:

vegetables and fruits, including fresh, frozen, or unsweetened dried produce

grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat

legumes such as beans and lentils

starchy root vegetables such as potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes

meat, poultry, eggs, and fish

fresh or pasteurized milk and plain yogurt

100% fruit or vegetable juice

herbs and spices

tea and coffee

nuts and seeds

Items made from whole foods — such as granola made with oats, dried fruit, and no added sugar, or polenta made with whole cornmeal — are also considered minimally processed and therefore “healthy.”

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