wellness·4 min read

theSkimm on Processed Foods

theSkimm on Processed Foods
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Pexels
Jan 1, 2021

The Story 

Whether you believe ‘you are what you eat’ or have muted all nutrition and wellness coaches on your IG...not all foods are created equal.

What are the different types of foods? 

  • Whole…The au naturel one. Food that’s mostly unprocessed or unrefined, including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

  • Organic…The one with the certification. Organic foods that are USDA certified meet federal guidelines that address things like pest and weed control, use of additives, and soil quality.  

  • Processed...The one that’s been through the change. Any food that’s been changed from its natural state is technically considered processed, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad. That's because it can include things like washing, cleaning, chopping, heating, cooking, canning, freezing, dehydrating, and packaging. But it also accounts for practices that are more likely to wind up on a nutritionist’s sh*t list: adding so many preservatives, colors, and flavors that a food gets deemed ‘highly processed.’

Still processing. What exactly should I watch out for on labels? 

Scientists came up with a system called the NOVA classification that outlines different types of food processing. There’s food that’s unprocessed or minimally processed (think: veggies and fruits that have been cleaned). Then there are ingredients for cooking that have been lightly processed or extracted from unprocessed foods (think: oils from plants and flours or pastas from whole grains). Next up: there’s food from either of those two groups, but with added salt, sugar, or fats (think: canned fruits or veggies, canned fish, and bread). Then there’s ultra-processed food. You know the type. 

Those are the ones I’m supposed to avoid, right? 

Correct. We’re not here to tell you to never eat chips because, hello, you gotta live your life. But these are the foods you should try to avoid putting in your cart. Ultra-processed foods go beyond adding salt, sugar, or fat and add things like preservatives to make them stay on the shelf longer and artificial flavors to keep you coming back for more. Ultra-processed foods include chips, sweetened cereals, soda, and white bread. You can still get the satisfaction of these ultra-processed foods using less processed swaps.

Which ingredients should I look out for? 

Some offenders include...

  • Sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate

  • High-fructose corn syrup 

  • Sodium benzoate

What will eating bad food do to me? 

Shocker: probably some weight gain. A recent study found that people eating ultra-processed foods gained more weight and ate more calories than when they ate a minimally processed diet—even though the meals provided to both groups during the study had the same amount of calories. Another study found people who ate more highly processed foods were at higher risk of heart-related health complications. Anddd other studies have found that eating more highly processed foods was linked to a higher risk of premature death in general. So there’s not much besides instant gratification to make the case for eating food from the dark side.

But they taste so good and don’t go bad...right? 

First things first—those dates on your bag of chips? Not exactly expiration dates. The dates don’t refer to food safety; they refer to quality. The FDA doesn’t require expiration dates on food (except baby formula), and dates are chosen by individual manufacturers to indicate freshness. Some commonly seen types and what they mean

  • 'Sell-By' date...As in how long the store should keep the product on the shelf. It doesn’t mean the product’s gone “bad” past this date, it means the store shouldn’t sell it if they want to ensure freshness. 

  • 'Best if Used By' date...As in when the product will have the best flavor and quality. Once again, not a safety date. 

  • 'Use-By' date...As in the last date recommended for use of the product. Also not a safety date, except when referring to baby formula. 

So how do I know if it’s safe to eat something or not? 

In general, you can consume food a few days past the date listed. Most canned foods can be stored for several years, and high-acid canned foods like canned juices, tomatoes, and pickles can be stored for more than a year. If you’re still confused, there’s an app for that. FoodKeeper, a free app from the USDA, will help you determine how soon a specific item should be consumed if it’s stored in the pantry versus the refrigerator once it’s opened. 


Food is primarily a source of nourishment. But it can also be a source of misinformation and a lot of crap. Understanding what’s on the label can help you feel better about what’s on your plate and in your body.

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