How To Eat Processed Food

Grocery cart

I eat processed foods.  And so do you.  It’s almost impossible not to. Food is “processed” as a matter of course to get it from the farm (or factory) to your table.  But wait, if you’ve done my Nourish program or worked with me privately you know I’m all about clean eating and avoiding processed foods.

So what’s the deal? Well, let’s start with what the word processed really means. Aside from what you can just pick and eat, most foods are processed in some way. At the same time, there are foods that people call “healthy” that to me are so processed they’re not even food.

Look at heart healthy olive oil. It needs to be processed in order for the oil to be extracted from it, right? So how do we differentiate between the good-processed and the bad-processed foods? You  might say that a good-processed oil is one that is naturally pressed and unrefined. A bad-processed oil is one that is chemically pressed and refined. Because we live in choice-overload at the grocery store it can be confusing. My clients send me emails all the time asking are these crackers better than those? Which yogurt is better? And one of my favorites, would YOU eat this?

So let’s clear up the confusion about the “P” word, starting with what I consider to be good-processed and bad-processed foods. Oh, and I can’t speak to every single food out there so here’s just a sampling of what I eat.

Good-processed foods

  • bagged veggies (yes, those are processed)
  • frozen fruit and plain frozen veggies
  • miso
  • oils (as noted above)
  • raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds (I’m not talking Planters)
  • oats and plain oatmeal
  • single whole grains (i.e., quinoa, millet, wild rice, etc.)
  • canned beans (BPA-free like Eden foods) OR boxed beans (Whole Foods has these)
  • tuna and salmon in a can (high quality stuff like Vital Choice, Tonnino, Wild Planet)
  • dried fruit (no sugar added)
  • Plain and organic yogurt (this is a sketchy area; lots of good yogurt that’s not organic or plain)
  • most hard cheese and soft cheese like goat and feta
  • salsa
  • granola
  • crisp bread crackers (like WASA, Orgran, Finncrisp)
  • some energy bars (like RX, Clif, Lara, and others)

I’ve got a bit of a hierarchy going with the good-processed foods. For one, I look for minimally processed items. These potentially boxed or bagged foods contain ingredients that I recognize and that I would use at home to prepare the food myself.  Yes, this means that I take a bit more time while shopping to read the ingredients. I don’t mind this because the grocery store is my partner in eating clean. It also means that just because a food is gluten-free or is made with quinoa or greens — doesn’t mean it’s clean eats.

Take, for example, the ingredients present in this roasted garlic chicken frozen dinner, a gluten-free gem made with spinach from Lean Cuisine.

Water, cooked chicken tenderloin (chicken tenderloins, water, seasoning), modified corn starch, sugar, potassium chloride, yeast extract, dextrose, spice, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika), soybean oil, isolated soy protein, sodium phosphates), spinach, skim milk, onions, carrots, 2% or less of modified corn starch, cheese flavor (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), soybean oil, white white, butterfat, Asiago cheese, salt, cheese flavor (cheddar cheese, cultured milk, salt, enzymes), water, salt, enzymes, cultures, phosphoric acid, xantham gum,  seasoning, (autolyzed extract, flavors, water, chicken powder, chicken fat, sugar, sodium lactate, sodium, phosphate lactic acid) potassium chloride, roasted garlic, dehydrated onions, basil, enzyme modified Parmesan cheese, puree, whey, yeast extract, whey, carrageenan, spices, caramel color, chicken fat flavor, cultured whey, turmeric. 

I don’t cook with many of these ingredients. For me, I just don’t want the added chemicals clogging up my cells. I’ve got enough of those coming in from just living and breathing. I’m thinking you probably don’t either. So my answer to this is simple: I don’t buy the Lean Cuisine. Instead, I buy some chicken breasts, sprinkle on some spices, and cook at 375 for about 25 minutes. It really is that easy. I can do it and I don’t even eat chicken.

Bad-Processed Foods

The list of these foods is long and I will not even try to do it justice here. I will just say that these foods are extensively processed in order to be edible, they are not found as is in nature, or they are foods processed using chemicals that I don’t want to be eating.

I’m talking mostly about GMOs, additives, preservatives and artificial flavorings. Now some in the food industry might argue that the healthiest food in the world is processed; that food fortification plays a large role in meeting our nutrient needs and that processing helps enhance and preserve food quality. All of that may be true. Whole grains are processed and I encourage you to eat them. However, you can get your whole grains in their natural state (see my good-processed list above). You don’t have to buy into this cereal being a good choice for whole grains:

Kelloggs Froot Loops cereal

Ingredients: Sugar, corn flour blend (whole grain yellow corn flour, degerminated yellow corn flour), wheat flour, whole grain oat flour, oat fiber, soluble corn fiber, contains 2% or less of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut, soybean and/or cottonseed), salt, red 40, natural flavor, blue 2, turmeric color, yellow 6, annatto color, blue 1, BHT , Vitamin C (sodium ascorbate and ascorbic acid), niacinamide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B1 (thiamin hydrochloride), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, vitamin D, vitamin B12.

Froot Loops lovers are cringing right now. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that a bowl of bad-processed cereal in the morning is good for you because it has whole grains in it. Because it also contains artificial flavors, colors (red 40, blue 1 and 2, and yellow 6) and preservatives like BHT

If whole grains are what you’re after, it’s safe to say that this Kind granola would be a cleaner, good-processed choice. A good way to know is by checking to see if the ingredients are those you would use if you were to make it yourself.


Ingredients: Whole grains (gluten free oats, brown rice, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, quinoa), evaporated cane juice, flax seeds, chicory root fiber, canola oil, molasses, cinnamon, sea salt, Vitamin E

Processed food does not have to be a curse on society. It can be a part of a healthy, clean eating lifestyle —  if you choose good-processed foods most of the time. But to me, eating clean is about more than just choosing the right nutrients on an ingredient list. It’s also about how your food is grown, sourced and prepared. It’s about eating food mostly in it’s natural state.

Yes, processed food is convenient and sometimes necessary, but preparing your own food is a necessity, too. One that takes a little more time, a little more confidence and a little more knowledge of cooking than does tearing open a bag or box and digging in. But I promise, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and the more you’ll appreciate it. 

11 replies
  1. Lexie Wolf
    Lexie Wolf says:

    I like this post a lot. It’s really hard to eat no processed foods at all – I always am a little doubtful about people who claim that! I follow pretty much the same hierarchy you do. Another piece of advice I might give people who are trying to figure out what to buy at the grocery store is to completely ignore the health claims at the front of the package like “natural” or “gluten-free” or what have you. As you said, go straight to the ingredient list. In addition I take a basic look at sugar, protein, and fiber content. If the protein and/or fiber are decent and sugar is not too high, that is another green light.

  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    Great blog post. I cook every meal from scratch but sometimes it’s nice to have a “quick fix” meal. As a personal trainer I try to share some of these same ideas with my clients along with if you cannot pronounce an ingredient it is probably something manufactured that your body won’t digest and also to look for items that have fewer than 5 ingredients that are considered whole foods that you recognize. I love your website and look forward to reading more for not just myself but to pass along to my clients. Thank you!!

  3. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Love this Danielle!! Amazing how much just looking at ingredients changes the way you look at packaged foods. P.S. That lean cuisine ingredient list is insane…..100% agree better to go simple.

  4. wcw
    wcw says:

    Why do RD’s always recommend “kind” bars they have chicory root fiber and that upsets the digestive system of lots of us ? it may be at the end of the label but it still there and inulin is in too many food now

  5. Danielle Omar
    Danielle Omar says:

    Well, chicory root and inulin don’t cause digestive issues for everyone! But, yes for those with IBS, both can be a problem. That’s why it’s so important to read labels!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, additives and other unsavory ingredients. I’ve written about this before. But not all packaged foods are unhealthy. In Nourish, I teach you what to look for on a […]

  2. […] to eat processed food? The answer is yes, sometimes. I’ve written about how to eat processed food before and there’s definitely a hierarchy you need to be aware of, but other than that, packaged food […]

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