Processed Foods: Good or Bad for You?

Processed foods are everywhere, but do they belong in a healthy diet? Here’s a guide to what they are and their benefits and risks.


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Processed food is everywhere in our world. But while some processed foods can be harmful, others are pretty healthy additions to your diet. Like many other things, processed food has its pros and cons.


Here is a guide to processed food and food additives, the benefits and downsides of processed foods, and how to choose only the healthiest processed foods to include in your diet.

What is processed food?

Processed food refers to any food that has experienced any degree of extra processing at all. It is a spectrum, or a continuum, that ranges from minimally processed to highly processed.


Some examples of minimally processed foods are pre-chopped onions, natural cheese, pasteurized eggs, or plain Greek yogurt.


On the other hand, highly processed foods include things like packaged snack cakes, potato or corn chips, frozen meals, and fast food. Generally, the more processed packaged food is, the more ingredients it contains. 


Additionally, some people may consider naturally unprocessed foods like fresh produce made from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) to be processed as well. Luckily, these can be avoided by looking for items that have a “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” seal on them.

What are food additives?

Food additives are extra, non-food ingredients added to processed foods. Each additive serves a specific purpose. Here are some examples of common food additives and how they’re used:


  • Preservatives: used to extend the shelf life of food (examples include phosphates, nitrates, and sodium benzoate)
  • Stabilizers: used to keep ingredients from separating in mixed foods (examples include carrageenan, cellulose, and lecithin)
  • Thickeners: used to thicken products like ice creams or soups (examples include cornstarch and xanthan gum)
  • Dyes: alter the color of the food (examples include FD&C red, blue, and yellow)
  • Sweeteners: provide sweetness (examples include high fructose corn syrup, glycerine, and artificial sweeteners)


In order for these ingredients to be added to foods, they must be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).


The most obvious benefit of food processing is that it allows foods to have a longer shelf life.


Processed foods made from wheat, corn, and soy are also very inexpensive, which can be helpful for households with limited resources—even though the food is not the healthiest.


Additionally, some GMOs are helping to solve the world hunger crisis and reverse common nutrient deficiencies in third-world countries.


Unfortunately, processing is not without its risks. 


Diets high in processed foods tend to be lower in quality and higher in added sugar than other diets, which can increase a person’s risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These foods may be addictive, as well.


Additionally, many GRAS ingredients may actually be harmful—like artificial sweeteners, which can damage gut health, and red dyes, which can lead to hyperactivity in children.


To promote health, your best bet is to eat a diet that’s made mostly of unprocessed foods with some minimally processed foods like cheese or yogurt added to the mix.


If you want to learn more about eating a healthy diet, check out our other Medlixr guides.