Processed Foods: How Much Is Too Much?

Where do foods cross the line between "whole" and "processed" food?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
2-minute read

There's a lot of talk these days about eating more whole foods and fewer processed foods. But is canned tuna considered a whole food? How about soymilk or peanut butter? Just how far do we really need to take this principle? (And lest you think I'm tilting at windmills, I get a lot of questions about whether foods like these should be considered "processed" or not.)

I think we'd have no trouble agreeing that a Pringle's potato chip is a "processed" food. But where exactly did it cross the line between whole and processed food? As soon as we washed the dirt off the potato? When we peeled it? When we ground it up? When we added sugar, salt, and preservatives? When we fried it?

According to the technical definition of food processing, canned tuna, soymilk, and peanut butter are all processed foods. So are pasteurized milk, filtered honey, frozen strawberries, and any vegetable that's had the dirt washed off it. In truth, most food we come into contact with lies somewhere on a processing spectrum, ranging from "just plucked off the tree" to "I can't even tell what food this used to be."

I think it's unrealistic--and unnecessary--to completely avoid all processed food. But every step you take toward the unprocessed end of the spectrum is a step in the right direction. If you've gotten your diet to the point that you're worried about whether canned tuna, peanut butter, and frozen strawberries are too processed, you can probably relax.

See also:

Are Peanuts Good for You?

Pros and Cons of Soy

Best Non-Dairy Milk

Healthiest Kind of Tuna


Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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.