Can Processed Food Be Healthy?

We hear a lot about the dangers of "processed" foods these days. But some kinds of processing can make food better for you. Nutrition Diva explains how to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #309

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful physicians, nurses, and administrators of a healthcare company called Health by Design in San Antonio,Texas.

In one of my presentations to this group, I said that as processed foods have come to make up more and more of our food intake, the nutritional quality of our diet has suffered.>

In the Q&A after my presentation, one of the doctors asked me to define exactly it is about processing that makes foods bad for us. “My mother cans vegetables from her garden every year, “ he said. “Is this processing making those vegetables unwholesome?”

I realized that I have been guilty of using the word “processed” in a sort of lazy way, as a blanket term to describe foods that don’t add much - or even detract from - the nutritional quality of our diet. As if all processing is the same and all processed foods are bad for you. But, of course, this isn’t the case at all.

See also: Processed Foods: How Much Is Too Much?


Some forms of processing strip nutrients from foods and add undesirable chemicals, creating more concentrated sources of empty calories. But processing can also do many desirable things, such as removing impurities, killing pathogens, adding or creating beneficial compounds, and making nutrients more bio-available.

See also: How Cooking Affects Nutrients


Take yogurt, for example. Milk is first pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria. It’s then inoculated with active cultures and warmed to promote the growth of probiotic bacteria. As they multiply, these bacteria break down much of lactose in the milk, making the milk more digestible. They also prevent the milk from spoiling as quickly as it otherwise would.

Not All Processed Foods Are Bad for You

Yogurt is clearly a processed food and yet I would say that the processing improves its value. Yes, some nutrients are lost to the pasteurization process. Almost all of the vitamin C in raw milk, for example, is destroyed. But milk doesn’t contain a lot of vitamin C to begin with. The primary nutrients in milk—protein, calcium, and potassium—are largely unaffected, and the probiotic bacteria add several beneficial attributes.

Now let’s take an example from the other end of the processed food spectrum: jelly beans.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.