Why “Avoid Processed Foods” is Bad Advice

Countless internet blogs preach about the dangers of processed food, how eating a diet with processed food will make you gain weight and your health will suffer. Yet anyone who writes this nonsense doesn’t understand the real definition of processed foods (and I bet large sums of money they eat many processed foods) and the benefits they provide.

A processed food is “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity (“food that is in its raw or natural state, including all fruits that are washed, colored, or otherwise treated in their unpeeled natural form prior to marketing”) and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling (1, 2).” Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, livestock – these are all agricultural commodities. And therefore, all of the following are processed foods: frozen broccoli, frozen chicken breast, dried beans, dried pumpkins seeds. Who in their right mind would dare say any of these foods are harmful or will make you pack on the pounds? Someone who has no clue what they are talking about. Not to mention there are many reasons why processed food are healthy:

Versatility

If you want to get a wide array of nutrients and healthy plant compounds (such as antioxidants) you should eat a wide variety of foods. If you take all processed foods out of your diet you’ll only eat what is in season and hasn’t been altered.

Value

Dried beans, oatmeal and rice are processed foods that are very affordable. All cost pennies per serving (about 15 cents for a serving of brown rice). Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are another great example of affordable foods that are picked at their peak of ripeness, preserving nutrition value and flavor. In addition, 100% juice is a bargain, thanks to food processing.

Concord Grapes
Concord Grapes
Welch's 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes
Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a Concord grape farm – where they grow and   process the grapes into Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. Nothing is wasted during this process. The Concord grapes are crushed – skin, seeds and all (so more of the grape is in the bottle) – and heated to release healthy polyphenols (plant based compounds) straight from the grape into the juice. In fact, 40 whole Concord grapes are in every 8 oz. serving of Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. This is important because over a decade of research indicates that, thanks to the Concord grape, 100% grape juice made from these grapes helps support a healthy heart. Because the Concord grape harvest season is very short, lasting approximately 12 weeks, juice processing delivers the benefits of Concord grapes to us year round.

I consider all of these processed foods a good nutrition bargain. Plus, you may end up with less food waste, thanks to a longer shelf life, if you buy canned and frozen produce and poultry as well as 100% juice.

Convenience

In between long days and traveling, there are days I like meals that take me 5 minutes or less to throw together (not to mention if I’m hungry I want to eat asap). Frozen and canned foods allow me to do this. Steamed vegetables? They take about 7 minutes in my stovetop steamer. Canned? Less than 1 minute to open the can (because sometimes I don’t even heat them up). Frozen chicken breast? Perfect, I don’t have to go by the grocery store late at night if there is nothing in my fridge.

So the next time you hear someone say you should eat fewer processed foods, ask them to define “processed food.” And if you read it in a blog, move on to nutrition advice grounded in science.

Disclosure: I am an advisory board member of family-farmer owned Welch’s.

1) 21 U.S.C. United States Code, 2010 Edition, Title 21 – Food and Drugs. Chapter 9 – Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Subchapter II – Definitions.

2) SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321]. CHAPTER II—DEFINITIONS 1.

4 thoughts on “Why “Avoid Processed Foods” is Bad Advice”

  1. How would you recommend talking about foods that are overly processed? How do you help draw those distinctions with your words? As a dietitian, I am also looking to present good science with “followable” information.

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