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How Do Processed Foods Fit Into Healthy Dietary Patterns?

By: Bessie O'Connor, RDN

  • Friday, March 12, 2021
  • 3 Minute Read   

Food processing plays an important role in food security and food safety. Much of the food we eat has gone through different levels of processing such as cooking, fermenting, refining and preserving. In fact, processing foods is essential to how we live today, helping to extend the life of many foods we consume so that they can be enjoyed beyond their season. While processing in and of itself is not bad, how a food is processed is key to determining its overall quality and healthfulness, as a food’s health benefits can be increased, improved or decreased based on how it is processed.  

When considering processed foods, the terms unprocessed, minimally processed, highly processed and ultra-processed are often used to identify where foods fall on a food-processing spectrum. Whole foods like apples that can be found in nature fall on the unprocessed end of the spectrum, while foods such as fruit flavored gummy snacks fall on the highly processed end of the spectrum. 

Learn about processed foods in this blog.

When a food is in its natural state, the nutrients are contained within a complex structure that provides the greatest health benefit. An orange, a glass of 100% orange juice and a sugar-sweetened orange drink may all provide vitamin C, but the orange is a more favorable option because it is in its natural state and contains fiber, which promotes gut health, regulates hunger and lowers risk of heart disease. The sugar-sweetened orange drink is considered the least favorable option because it is the most processed option, containing added sugar, artificial colors and artificial flavors that do not offer any health benefits. 

Build your daily food choices with nutrient dense, minimally processed foods most often. Choose foods closest to their whole form when possible. These include: 

  • Fruits and vegetables like berries, bananas, carrots and broccoli contain fiber, potassium and phytonutrients that provide tremendous health benefits. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables reduces risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, and has a positive effect on blood sugar. 
  • Dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese are nutrient-dense and provide a unique package of nutrients—including protein, calcium and vitamins A, D and B12 and more—that support growth and development in children and optimal health. 
  • Dried beans, lentils and peas are highly affordable and nutritious when cooked, providing protein, fiber and many beneficial vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, nonheme iron and zinc. Canned varieties of legumes are also a great option, providing the same nutrition and conveniently ready-to-use.  
  • Eggs, fish and lean meats are excellent sources of protein and provide nutrients especially important during pregnancy and key growth periods through childhood and adolescence. 
  • Fermented foods and drinks, including dairy (such as yogurt and kefir) and vegetables (such as kimchi and sauerkraut), provide health benefits from probiotics, which maintain the balance of bacteria in the gut necessary for a healthy digestive system. Foods that contain probiotics have been found to be protective against high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.  
  • Whole-grain foods such as breads, pastas and cereals promote adequate intake of key nutrients such fiber and iron and folate when they are fortified.

Many nutrient-dense foods listed above can be canned or frozen to extend their shelf life and prevent food waste. An example are canned and frozen fruits and vegetables which are often picked at the peak of the season and are great, nutritious options. Frozen whole grains, like brown rice, and canned beans and lentils are also nutrient-dense and provide added convenience and accessibility. Some canned and frozen foods may have added sugar or salt, so it’s important to look at the ingredient and nutrition fact label when shopping.

Limit consumption of highly processed or ultra-processed foods:

  • Food processing can add excess amounts of sugar, salt and fat to the point that a food no longer contributes to overall health. More commonly referred to as “junk” food, this category of foods are high in calorie while offering little to no nutrition such as chips, cake, soft drinks and more. Consuming high calorie foods with added sugars, salt and fat over time contributes to weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
  • Highly processed foods can be easy to overconsume because they are hyperpalatable, a term used to describe the combination of sugar, salt, fat and carbohydrates specifically designed to maximize tastiness. Not only are they designed to be hyperpalatable, or extremely tasty, they are often inexpensive and convenient due to their long shelf life. 

While dietary recommendations recognize eating whole and minimally processed foods is important to build healthy dietary patterns, a variety of foods with varying degrees of processing can fit into healthy dietary patterns. Including minimally processed foods, which are still nutrient dense, can provide important nutrients while expanding food choices. This allows for inclusion of a broader variety of foods to meet personal preferences and enjoyment while also improving overall diet quality and ensuring adequate intakes of nutrients. 

Daily food choices can be influenced by many factors, including culture, taste, cost and convenience. The foods you eat regularly over time have more impact on health than what you might eat during a single meal, which is why building healthy eating patterns is so important. Finding realistic ways to replace highly or ultra-processed foods with whole or minimally processed foods, we can improve dietary habits and create a healthier eating pattern one swap at a time. Explore more nutrition topics at HealthyEating.org/Nutrition-Topics.



Busko M. ‘Hyperpalatable’ Defined as Foods Driving the Obesity Epidemic. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/921472. Published November 18, 2019. Accessed January 13, 2021.

Knorr D, Watzke H. Food processing at a crossroad. Front Nutr. 2019. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00085

Kok CR, Hutkins R. Yogurt and other fermented foods as sources of health-promoting bacteria. Nutr Rev. 2018;76(Suppl 1):4-15.

Polak R, Phillips EM, Campbell A. Legumes: health benefits and culinary approaches to increase intake. Clin Diabetes. 2015;33(4):198-205. doi:10.2337/diaclin.33.4.198

US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Weaver CM, Dwyer J, Fulgoni VL III, et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014:99(6):1525-1542. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.089284

Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.

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