Pop quiz. Which of the following is considered a processed food: Kellogg's Corn Flakes, homemade greek yogurt, bagged baby spinach? (Answer: All of them.)
The point here, is that "processed foods" includes a much wider variety of products than most consumers typically associate with the term. Secondly, not all processed foods are evil. Processed foods can provide convenience, like in the case of bagged baby spinach, or safety, as in the case of pasteurized eggs, and can even -- gasp -- be healthy.
"The idea of saying just avoid processed foods is crazy," Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, CSSD, LDN, told The Huffington Post. "Yogurt is a processed food. It’s actually been cultured and packaged. Canned beans, with no other ingredient besides beans, is processed because [the beans] have been cooked and they have been canned." Where Blatner draws the line with her endorsement is with extremely processed foods, which logically enough, is also where things start to get murky for consumers.
And while this may seem like an issue of semantics -- after all, when most people say "processed," they expect others understand this to be a colloquial term for "unhealthy" -- the lack of a clear and official definition for what qualifies as a heavily processed foods is extremely controversial in the nutrition community. A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May, has set out to clarify and define what, exactly, is meant by the term.
The U.S. government defines processed food as "any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling." That seems clear enough. But there's no agreed upon definition for extremely processed foods, the stuff that nutritionists like Blatner say we should be avoiding at the grocery store.
As the researchers write in the study, "The U.S. government’s definition of 'processed food' -- any food other than a raw agricultural commodity -- includes a diverse array of foods ranging from frozen vegetables, dried fruit, and canned beans to whole-wheat bread, breakfast cereals, prepared meals, candy and soda." Basically, any category that includes both soda and frozen vegetables is too broad to help consumers make healthy eating choices.
To help break things down, the researchers divided 1.2 million food products into four distinct categories: minimally processed, basic processed, moderately processed and highly processed. In the study, highly processed food were defined as "multi-ingredient industrially formulated mixtures processed to the extent that they are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source."
Americans are buying highly processed foods in large quantities. According to the study, 61 percent of our calories come from these highly processed foods, including refined bread, lunch meat, soda, alcohol, and condiments like salsa and hummus. These foods were also higher in fat, sugar and sodium than their less-processed counterparts.
Outside of the research world, dividing your shopping chart into four processing categories probably isn't realistic. So what should a health-conscious shopper do? For starters, Blatner recommends reading nutrition labels from the bottom up, starting with the ingredient list. Shoppers should keep an eye out for nutritional red flags: chemicals they don't use in their own kitchens; refined sugar and flour; artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors; and preservatives (ingredients starting with a string of letters, like BHA and BHT). The more of these red flags on the ingredient list, the higher the chance that the item is highly processed and probably not a smart purchase from a nutritional standpoint.
The important takeaway here is that people are using the same word to mean two very different things. Food manufactures choose to say that every food is processed, ignoring the fact that not all processed foods have equal health profiles. Health food advocates, on the other hand, may toss the term around incorrectly, as a catchall for anything they consider unhealthy.
"It’s not demonizing processed foods," Blatner said. "Let’s put an actual word ahead of that –- extreme processing -- and then let’s define that together."
So here, a few surprisingly processed -- but still healthy -- foods:
Level of processing: Minimally processed. Eggs are heated to a temperature high enough to kill bacteria found in the food, making it safer for consumers.
Level of processing: Basic processed. Fruit is crushed and pressed to extract its juice, without producing any heat that could break down nutrients.
Why it's healthy: A diet high in fruits and vegetables can ward off stoke and heart attack and prolong your life. Still, you're better off reaching for whole fruits than juice -- a 2013 study found that while eating whole fruits decreased participants risk of Type 2 diabetes, drinking fruit juice actually increased their risk.
Plain Greek yogurt
Level of processing: Basic processed. Live yogurt cultures are added to strained and pasteurized cow's milk and then strained to remove the whey, which makes the yogurt thicker.
Canned green beans
Level of processing: Basic processed. Green beans are washed and canned under pressure to prevent food-borne botulism. Canned green beans are affordable and easy to cook with.
Why it's healthy: Canned green beans are packaged at the height of freshness and contain calcium and vitamins C, K and A (although fresh green beans have higher levels of vitamins and minerals than canned). Just make sure you aren't buying the kind with added sugar or sodium.
Level of processing: Minimally processed. Pitting and drying apricots preserves the fruit and makes it easier to transport.
Why it's healthy: Dried apricots are a good source of dietary fiber, and contain even higher levels of iron and potassium than fresh apricots.
100-percent, whole-wheat bread
Level of processing: Moderately processed. Bread is somewhat removed from its original raw ingredients. Wheat is converted to flour, without removing the bran and germ, and combined with water, yeast, eggs, oil, salt and sugar.
Why it's healthy: Whole grains are a good source of fiber, as well as selenium, magnesium and potassium.
Level of processing: Minimally processed. Freezing meat preserves it and stops bacteria in the food from multiplying.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Level of processing: Basic processed. Making olive oil is a multi-step process, including washing the fruit, pressing it and extracting the oil from the resulting olive pulp.
Why it's healthy: Olive oil contains monounsaturated fatty acids, which are considered heart healthy and could lower your risk of heart disease.
Level of processing: Moderately processed. From testing for a "clean break" to separating the curds from the whey, making cheese is not a simple process. Here's one professor's 21-step illustrated recipe.
Why it's healthy: A recent study linked a diet rich in cheese to a decreased risk for obesity and a faster metabolism. That said, like all good things, cheese is probably best enjoyed in moderation.
Level of processing: Minimally processed. Tea leaves are steamed, rolled and dried, causing oxidation.
Why it's healthy: Green tea contains catechins, which have been linked to lower body fat and a decrease in obesity.
Level of processing: Minimally processed. Shelling makes almonds easier and more convenient to eat. Following two salmonella outbreaks in California in the early aughts, the USDA has required all almonds (even "raw" ones) be pasteurized before being sold to the public.
Why it's healthy: Almonds contain more calcium than any other nut, as well as protein and hearty-health fats.