I would not get the nutrients my body needs if it weren’t for processed and packaged foods. And as a registered dietitian, I’m here to tell you, this is not a bad thing.
People tend to think of the terms “packaged” and “processed” and “ultra-processed” as four-letter words in the food space. In fact, when asked to define what they consider key to a healthy eating pattern, 40% of people said avoiding processed foods was a big part of it, according to a 2021 report by the International Food Information Council.
Processed and packaged foods are often vilified because we’re told to eat food closest to its natural state. But what lots of people don’t really realize is that the vast majority of what we eat is processed in some way. According to the NOVA classification, a common way to categorize processing in nutrition science, even foods that have been frozen, placed in containers, dried, cooked, vacuum-packed, washed, or had unwanted or inedible parts removed could be considered minimally processed.
Unless you go to an apple orchard, pick your apple, and eat it there, your food is likely processed. Now, there are various degrees of processing—say, a pint of berries and a bag of salad greens are less processed than prepared frozen dinners. But even the ultra-processed stuff gets an over-generalized bad rap. Ultra-processed foods are made from a series of industrial techniques and processes, such as fractioning (which separates the food into discrete parts, like sugars, oils and fats, fiber, and protein) and chemical modifications like hydrogenation, as well as the addition of additives. But that doesn’t mean you should immediately write them off or ban them from your diet.
Consider this: An Oreo cookie is ultra-processed—but so is your protein powder. A can of soda is ultra-processed, but so is a container of oat milk. Fast-food burgers are ultra-processed, but so are soy-based meat products. Yet out of the above list, some of these foods often receive a “healthy” stamp of approval from varying wellness communities while others do not.
Part of this is because of the concern people have about the chemicals added in processing. Many people think that preservatives or ingredients you can’t pronounce are inherently scary, or that anything added into food is harmful. However, many of our foods are processed to add nutrition—not reduce it. For example, milk is often fortified with vitamin D, and breakfast cereals can have added B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and more. Wheat flour is enriched with folic acid, riboflavin, and iron. Not to mention that certain processes like pasteurization decrease microbial contamination and reduce foodborne illness. In other words, processed or even ultra-processed doesn’t have to cause mass panic. And the extent to which food is packaged or processed doesn’t necessarily negate the nutrients that it has to offer, or the amount of joy it can bring. After all, food is more than its nutritional makeup.
As a registered dietitian, I know there are many good reasons to include these types of food in your diet on the regular. For one, canned, frozen, and packaged foods tend to be more cost-effective than their “whole” counterparts—something especially important now, as food prices continue to increase and 10% of households experience food insecurity throughout the year. These types of food can be helpful for people with disabilities, since many packaged or canned foods might be easier to open or prepare, as well as to swallow and digest. Plus, many of them are just plain convenient. At the end of the day, we’re busy adults with packed schedules. Not everyone feels like or has access to making a meal from scratch. Many of us want something that saves time.