Lightly Processed And Highly Processed Foods: Spot The Difference

Limiting our intake of highly processed foods, and eating more whole and lightly processed fare can boost our nutrient and fiber intake, lower sugar consumption, and may help with weight control.

Lightly and Highly Processed

Whole foods are those that have not been altered from their natural state, such as fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, and brown rice. Minimal processing is sometimes used to wash, cut, box, and bag these items.

Lightly processed fare includes goods such as tomatoes, green beans, tuna, and berries that are canned or frozen soon after harvesting. They may have one or two added ingredients, such as salt. Packaged items with only a few high-quality added ingredients (e.g., herbs, spices, oils) might also be considered lightly processed, such as some pasta sauces, and salad dressings.


Highly processed products are those where nutrient content, shelf-life, texture, taste, and colors have been significantly altered by using refined flours, sweeteners, dyes, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other additives. Numerous jarred, boxed, and wrapped edibles are highly processed, including many heat-and serve-meals, crackers, cereals, and prepackaged deli meats.

Spotting Highly Processed Fare

When shopping, it just takes a bit of sleuthing to tell highly processed foods from those that are whole, or lightly processed.

Generally, a packaged food is highly processed:

  • If it contains ingredients we would not cook with at home. For instance, it’s likely that none of us keep high-fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin in our pantry. So, finding these items on an ingredient list most often indicates the product is highly processed.
  • If it contains added sugars. Vilifying refined sugar is counterproductive, and even lightly processed foods might contain small amounts of it. However, highly processed items frequently have an insane amount of added sugars. The manufacturers know that sugar stimulates our brain’s reward response, which primes us to want more.
  • If it contains artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, or other chemical additives. It’s true that not everyone worries about ingesting these substances, but really, no truly wholesome food would include potentially toxic substances—even in small amounts.
  • If it has more than seven ingredients. We can be flexible with this, but not too much. Even if a product has more than five ingredients we should take a close look at what those ingredients are. Consider that many basic recipes made at home have five to seven main ingredients, plus some additional herbs, spices, condiments, and garnishes.
  • If it contains refined grains. When a grain is refined, part of its kernel is removed during processing. This helps create food products with a smoother texture, milder taste, and longer shelf life, but nutrients are lost in the refining process. To compensate, many manufacturers “enrich” their products by adding some vitamins and minerals back in. However, what’s added back is no match for the variety and balance of nutrients naturally found in whole grain products.
  • If it contains partially hydrogenated oils. It’s a good idea to limit or avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated oils—and there are many on our store shelves.

If all calories were alike then eating a lot of highly processed foods would be less of an issue. However, there is no question that the source of our calories matters if we want to get the nutrients we need and avoid the added sugars that contribute to insulin resistance, and weight gain.


Source: 100 Days of Real Food, Eat Right
Photo: Pexels


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