Modern-day lifestyles and busy schedules have only fueled the popularity of processed foods, or rather, heavily processed foods.

Processed foods aren’t just hot dogs, potato chips, fast-food burgers and frozen meals – they’re also homemade casseroles and soups, cheese, milk, whole-wheat bread or dried fruit.

For a food to be considered “processed,” it must have been cooked, packaged, frozen or altered with preserving, fortifying, or preparing in some fashion. When we prepare food in our own kitchen, we’re processing it.

A Scale of Minimally to Heavily Processed

There is a wide range when it comes to the degree of processing of foods.

  1. Minimally processed: Includes bagged lettuce, cut fruits and vegetables and roasted nuts.
  2. Moderately processed: Foods such as frozen fruit and vegetables, canned fish or canned tomatoes. These are processed to retain freshness and nutritional qualities.
  3. More heavily processed: Includes foods that have been artificially sweetened or preserved such as salad dressings, pasta sauce and yogurt.
  4. Most processed: Meals already prepared such as frozen pizza and frozen dinners.

Sometimes, processed foods are beneficial in that they provide nutrients that you wouldn’t otherwise be getting in heavy doses. For example, cereals may have fiber added, or milk may be fortified with vitamin D and calcium.

What to Look For on Packages

Although packaged and processed foods aren’t necessarily bad for us when consumed in moderation, there are certain things to keep an eye out for on packages.

  1. Sodium: Processed foods are notorious for having high amounts of salt – just look at the sodium levels on most canned soups, sauces and hot dogs. The salt serves to preserve food, giving it a longer shelf life. For healthier options, seek out items saying low or reduced sodium.
  2. Sugars: Many processed foods have extra sugar added – not just “sweets” such as cookies and cereal. Sugar is often added to ketchup, bread, sauces, fruit snacks and granola bars – as well as food marketed as “low-fat” – to improve taste. Select foods without terms such as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maltose or fruit juice concentrate among the first few ingredients.

When it comes to planning meals for yourself or your family, consider the amount of processing that goes into the ingredients you’re considering and choose those that fall into the minimally or moderately processed categories.