Food 101: Processed Food, Explained with Examples

Lunchables Hum, Turkey, and Crackers in Plastic Container

Hey, everyone. So I think the best way to start off this Food 101 series is with a post about processed food. Mainly because this is what we DO NOT serve here at Dig Inn – we’re all about making food from scratch (real raw ingredients) everyday at each of our how stores.

So let’s start off with the basics…

What is processed food?

Depending on how you look at it, almost all foods are processed to some degree. I like to think of processed food as broken down into two categories. There is bad food processing and there is normal food processing – what we do in our homes when we prepare dinner from scratch and what we do here at Dig Inn. In this post, I’ll be focusing on bad food processing.

Foods that fall into this category are foods produced in large factories that use excessive heating and cooling practices and chemical alteration to create the final product. These foods often include include incomprehensible ingredients that are derivatives of corn, soy, and/or chemicals. These are things like sodas and candy bars, as well as many processed deli meats and vegetables.

But the best way to explain this is through examples, of which I’ve included 3 below.

Peanut Butter

There aren’t many things I enjoy more than a good PB&J and not all peanut butter is processed in a destructive way, but, unfortunately, most peanut butter is heavily processed. Industrial food producers add hydrogenated vegetable oils to ground peanuts to prevent the natural separation that occurs when a jar of peanut butter sits on a shelf. We’ll be talking a lot more about the negative health consequences of hydrogenated vegetable oils in the coming weeks, but for the time being, trust me, they are not good.

Peanut butter on its own is a food that has an abundance of healthy unsaturated fatty acids (including oleic acid and monounsaturated fat), which are believed to be good for the heart. However, adding trans-fats for consumer appeal and increased shelf life cancels out these health benefits, making processed peanut butter a food that you should avoid. But not to worry, there are plenty of natural (i.e. processed in a good way) peanut butter brands available in most stores today.

Packaged Deli Meat

As with peanut butter, there are good packaged deli meats and there are bad packaged deli meats. On the good side, Plainville Farms is one example of a company that makes a delicious and healthful antibiotic-free deli meat. Unfortunately, companies like Plainville Farms are few and far between – most packaged deli meats are heavily processed and bad for you in several ways.

Industrial deli meat producers typically pump additives such as sodium nitrate, corn syrup, citric acid, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), a variety of sodium variants, and myriad other chemicals into the packaged deli meats you find in most stores. These are brands such as Hillshire Farms and Oscar Meyer. From a health perspective, Lunchables might as well be called “Untouchables.”

We’ll talk more about why all these chemicals are bad for you in our next Food 101 post, but here’s a simple rule of thumb – if the ingredients listed on the back of the package wouldn’t make sense to an elementary school student , then you should put the package done and walk away. Quickly.

Processed Frozen Vegetables

My mother always told me to eat my vegetables, but not all vegetables are created equal, in turns out. Unfortunately, processed frozen vegetables should be added to your “foods to avoid” list.

For large food corporations to distribute massive amounts of vegetables and avoid spreading food-borne diseases, they heavily process the vegetables before they are frozen. These companies often blanch or heat up the vegetables to remove bacteria and other things that would cause the vegetables to rot more quickly before freezing them. This process causes many nutrients to be lost, especially water soluble vitamins. In addition, as with deli meats, food companies add chemicals to these vegetables to extend shelf lives and bleach out impurities.

How do you avoid these processed frozen vegetables? Just buy the fresh produce available in the supermarket or, better yet, at the farmer’s market. Or if you’re looking for the convenience of frozen vegetables, there are good ones out there – just be sure to purchase vegetables that were flash frozen (a freezing process that locks in nutrients) without processing. Whole Foods offers several varieties of these unprocessed frozen veggies.

To be continued…

While food processing has been around for thousands of years and has helped us feed our military troops, relieve famines, and spend less time cooking, it comes with some definite drawbacks. In the next Food 101 post, I’ll explain more about processed food’s two biggest negatives – lack of nutritional value and bad additives.

6 comments on this post

  1. Hey there! I stumbled upon your post researching peanut butter to decide whether or not I should consider it a “processed” food or not. I agree with your assertion about trans fats and the need to avoid them, and I am satisfied with the “natural” brand of peanut butter that I buy because the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.

    Where you and I disagree is on your opinion about frozen vegetables; the blanching process is something that even a sensible homemaker would do before freezing the bounty of her garden. This is completed NOT to destroy bacteria but to halt the enzymes that tell the plant to continue ripening; freezing alone does not halt these enzymes so, in order to avoid a disappointing texture or off-taste when you go to use your frozen veggies, a quick bath in boiling water is best (please see this page for more about freezing veggies). I have never noticed anything on the label of the frozen vegetables I purchase that would indicate to me that chemicals were added; are you referring to the chemicals which are used to ripen vegetables prematurely?

    Finally, while the ideal situation would see us going to the farmer’s market every couple of days to imbibe fresh produce, a more realistic approach would have one seeking frozen veggies to augment wintertime meals as well as meals needed to be ready in a flash. In other words, frozen is by far superior to canned–having not been cooked once, canned and cooked again while snuggled up against the possibly BPA-coated interior of a tin can– and I believe that they have a place in our daily lives.


    • Hi, Tam. Thanks very much for your thoughtful response.

      To answer your question about chemicals, we were referring to any preservatives that may be added to certain packaged frozen vegetables that you’d find in the freezer at your local grocery store. This assumes a pretty expansive definition of frozen vegetables – we should have just made the point that you should always read the label of these packaged veggies to see if any chemicals have been added on the way to the grocery market freezer. And the bigger point that we were trying to make is that you should try to avoid the packaged frozen veggies and instead purchase fresh veggies from the produce department whenever possible.

      In regard to frozen vs. canned, we very much agree with you. So we would rank the three options in the following order:

      1. Fresh veggies from the produce aisle
      2. Frozen veggies
      3. Canned veggies

      Thanks again for writing. All very good points.

      • Thank you for the response !

        I agree, it just makes sense to read labels; I was afraid you were hinting at ingredients and processes which were not being divulged on the packaging. While this would not surprise me in the least, that revelation would make a huge impact for me, personally.

        You see, where I live the Farmer’s Markets JUST opened up this week. Over the extended winter I had to make several tough choices when it came to purchasing veggies; for instance, in the absence of fresh should I buy the frozen version or just go without (I don’t buy canned…period)? Is this imported vegetable safe to eat or are they using chemical pesticides which we have deemed unsafe? Should I insist on organic or on bulk vegetables (ie: veggies without packaging)? Should I be concerned about the miles and miles this red pepper (from HOLLAND?!) had to travel to get to the supermarket? Whats the impact…on the environment…on my family’s health…on the community from which this produce came? In other words, there are so many factors which go into the decision that more research and several blog posts are probably necessary to do it justice; I am relieved I don’t need to scrutinize my frozen veggie stand-ins any further than their label (for ingredients and Country of Origin).

        I apologize for steering the thread away from the originally intended message; I appreciate the message you folks are working to spread, and I will be behind you 100% of the way, fork and cloth napkin in hand! :)


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