Processed Foods – What is okay and what you want to avoid

By: Samantha Boucher, CSUN Dietetic Intern

For people who are conscious of nutrition, processed foods carry a scary name. They are blamed for almost everything; from weight gain to high blood pressure and possibly depression. But before we shun all processed foods from our diet, it’s important to understand what food processing entails. Food processing practices fall within different categories, ranging from minimal to high processing.

4 Levels of Food Processing

Unprocessed/minimally processed foods: include items such as fresh, frozen, dried fruits and vegetables with nothing added; eggs, meat, beans and so on.

Basic processing for preservation and isolating food parts: includes items such as egg whites, unsweetened juices and nut butters; canned fruits, vegetables, and legumes, sour cream, yogurt and so on.

Moderately processed for adding/enhancing flavors: includes items such as sweetened fruit juice and chocolate milk; sweetened or flavored canned, dried, frozen or refrigerated items like potato chips, jams, frozen French fries; cured meats; sweetened cereals.

Highly processed foods with multiple ingredients: includes items such as tomato sauce, bread crumbs, queso dip, canned sauces, condiments like mayonnaise, salad dressing and ketchup; candy, chocolate, ice cream, cakes, any frozen meal or pizza, breaded meats, lunch meats, sausage, and the long list continues.

Benefits of Food Processing

Foods that have undergone minimal or basic processing have some benefits, such as increased shelf life, convenience and are more cost effective. For example, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables last longer than fresh produce and are great for those who aren’t able to go to the grocery store regularly. Great options on campus include the fresh made sandwiches, fruit cups, pre-cut veggies and hummus, or the protein boxes usually sold at Freudian Sip or the Matador Mercado.

It’s the highly processed foods that you want to be wary of. Although most of the highly processed foods are still cheap and convenient, they are also packed with high levels of added fats, salt, and sugar. These are the culprits that you want to avoid.

I know it can seem impossible to limit these highly processed foods but here are some tips to set you on the right track.

Get Familiar with the Food Label

So how can you tell which foods are minimally vs highly processed? You’ll want to get familiar with the food label. Pay attention to what you’re buying at the grocery store; look for added sodium (salt), sugar and fat.

  • Limit your sodium (salt) to approximately 2300 mg per day
  • For men, limit your sugar to 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) per day
  • For women, limit your sugar to 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day
  • Limit your fat intake to about 40-70 grams per day
    • Aim for healthy fats called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
    • Avoid foods with saturated and trans fat


Minimally Processed Foods (can be part of a well-balanced diet)

Dehydrated beets → beets that have their water removed in order to make them resemble a crunchy snack. Only 1 ingredient and no added sugar or salt!

Frozen corn → increases shelf life and still packed with nutrients. Only 1 ingredient and no added sugar or salt!

Frozen brown rice → brown rice that has been cooked and then frozen to increase shelf life. Also very convenient! Only 1 ingredient and no added sugar or salt.

Canned green beans → canned veggies have an extremely long shelf life and are very convenient. If you look closely, the ingredients include green beans, water and salt. By rinsing the green beans before eating them you can reduce the amount of salt you consume.


Highly Processed Foods (try your best to limit items like these)

Barbecue sauce → if you look carefully at the label you’ll see lots of ingredients… included added sugar and salt. Two tablespoons (which isn’t much) adds 400 mg of sodium and 12g of added sugars to your diet!

Frozen cordon bleu → although this is a convenient meal it is packed with salt and saturated fats. Eating just one would add 480 mg of salt and 4 g saturated fat to your diet. If this is what you’re really craving for lunch or dinner, not a problem! Just add a large side of vegetables or fruit to help fill you up and keep you satisfied!

Frozen chicken pot pie → very convenient but packed with added salt and fats (740 mg salt and 6 g saturated fat). A healthy alternative could be making homemade pot pies and freezing them for a later time. Then you control the ingredients and can limit the salt and fat that is added.


5 Tips on How to Fit Processed Foods into a Balanced Diet

To pull all of this information together, remember these easy tips:

  1. Rinse canned goods to remove the sodium (salt).
  2. Save half of the processed food item to eat as a leftover later.
  3. Add a large side of veggies on the side of your processed food item (example ½ chicken pot pie with a large side of frozen green beans).
  4. Buy low sodium, light, or low sugar alternatives.
  5. Use minimally processed foods and cook them at home. Bring the leftovers to school or work!




Added Sugars. (2017). In: American Heart Association.<>

Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. (2017). In: U.S Food and Drug Administration.<>

Fat: What You Need to Know. (2014). In: The Cleveland Clinic Foundation.<>

Poti, J. M., Mendez, M. A., Ng, S. W., & Popkin, B. M. (2015). Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the
nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? In (Vol. 101, pp. 1251-1262): The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. <>

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