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Jan 5, 2009 10:49 AM

What exactly is "processed food?"

Over the holiday weekend I was surfing a bunch of sites I normally don't hit while pondering making a healthier diet and fitness plan for the new year.

Long story short... I came upon a story on where celebrity cook/chef Rachael Ray discussed her philosphy on healthy eating. It was an interview consisting of 6 questions and 6 answers. One of her answers kind of surprised me. After I got over the surprise, I starting pondering it.

The answer that I questioned is here: With a link to the full version.
3. What’s your personal eating philosophy?

It’s a volume thing for me—I like to eat a lot of food. The only way to do that and not become huge and grossly unhealthy is to mix in vegetables and lean protein. Plus I don’t eat processed food. I think processed foods pollute people, bloat them up, and make them hugely unhealthy. I just didn’t grow up with it, and you don’t miss what you don’t have.

Okay, I have a couple of Rachael Ray cookbooks (gifts! gifts I swear!). And I know they include numerous recipes involving hot dogs (Chicago hot dog salad anyone?), pasta, salami, bacon, cheese, bread, potato chips, even Rice Krispies. (As a breading.) Additionally, Rachael has been a spokesperson for Nabisco, Burger King, and Dunkin' Donuts, and mentioned liking BK fries, and sneaking in onions to eat at the stadium on her hot dogs at ball games.

After reading that response, and knowing that she often remarks that she eats so much salami she smells like it.... I'm wondering... what exactly IS processed food?

I did a good search on "processed food." And found no easy answers. Certainly no answers that included hot dogs and salami.

Hounds? What do YOU consider processed food? Is a block of cheddar cheese processed? How about a sack of pasta?

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  1. For me it's any food product with ingredients that don't reasonably belong in it (i.e. not an ingredient I would use if making the equivalent from scratch).

    For example, peanut butter with anything other than peanuts, salt (and maybe sugar) is a "processed food" in my book, but peanut butter that is just peanuts and salt isn't a "processed food," even though it has been processed.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mpjmph

      mpjmph, that's a great way to put it.

      i'd also include foods that have had components unnecessarily removed (like refined flours)...and of course, pseudo-foods - i call them "pfoods - consisting of man-made ingredients that were created in a lab (e.g. artificial sweeteners & additives).

      bnemes makes a good point - based solely on definition, "processed" is not necessarily the most accurate term, but it has pretty much become the standard, recognized descriptor for what we're really talking about here.

    2. Processed foods have been altered from their natural state for safety reasons or convenience. So the milk you buy at the grocery store is 'processed', because it is pasteurized and homoginized. Orange juice fortified with calcium is 'processed'. Rachel Ray's comment seems pretty ignorant to me. And phony given her other statements and endorsements.

      1. If you do a search on detox diets, you'll get so many more definitions.

        Obviously, slicing, skinning, cutting, removing from tree, picking up from coop, rinsing with water, grading by size in sifters, transporting to market--those are part of the processing which I don't consider terribly relevant when it comes to my personal definition of processed. I also scale it on number of ingredients (preservatives, food colourings) and processes used to get to the end product. Could it be recreated from scratch in my kitchen with supplies from a standard grocer? If not, it's probably incredibly processed.

        Unprocessed foods would be items which look as they did in nature: apples, eggs, fruits, fish...

        Processed foods fall into 2 categories: those from which you can visually determine their origin, and those which you can't.

        IQF/Flash frozen seafood, fruits, and vegetables: I consider these minimally processed, next to fresh (possibly healthier, as in the case of peas)

        Pressing of oils and juices: if no salts, reconstitution, or pasturization is done, minimally processed

        Dried fruits, nuts, and cured leg of pig: less processed than soprasetta, because it still looks like leg of pig (sometimes with furry hoof attached); bresaola made in the traditional way, less processed than, say, Vienna Red Hots

        Pasta: the wheat has its husks and bran removed, then it's bleached & milled, possibly fortified, reconstituted, extruded, then dried and package: processed, but not as processed as American Processed Cheese Food Product as it remains 1-2 ingredients (duram wheat, possibly salt)

        Cheese: real cheese? With a very limited ingredient list of milk, rennet, salt, and mold? minimally processed

        Butter: single ingredient food, but different from in nature. Minimally processed

        Canned foods: highly processed

        Unrecognizable: Cheetos, Velveeta (clear if not dyed), most cold cereals, chicken nuggets, soda, tofurky...

        3 Replies
        1. re: Caralien

          The dangers of oversimplification. Canned foods are not necessarily highly processed. Canned tomatoes are washed, peeled (usually), and canned. Many canned vegetables are treated similarly. Canned niblets corn (they also have a no salt added version) from Green Giant, for example, is corn and water and salt (or no salt, depending).

          Certainly there are many things in cans that are highly processed, just as there many things all throughout the grocery store and food markets. There are also really fairly minimally processed things in cans that are excellent in terms of both taste and nutrition.

          1. re: ccbweb

            There are some good canned items and canning was invented to preserve food (by the French on order of Napoleon to better feed the troops), but most are highly processed in the can with very high sodium levels and many times a flabby texture (compare canned tuna to fresh, canned corn to frozen, dried beans soaked overnight to canned beans, canned versus frozen green beans, fruit, etc.). I've canned foods; this summer my prized pupil was pickled peaches which were made without salt. Do they have the firmnness of fresh or frozen? No, but they taste like my grandmother's peaches.

            Tomatoes don't freeze well, and I always keep those on hand in cans.

            I agree that there are better and worse canned items, but when it comes to produce, I'd rather have it frozen for the reasons stated above.

            1. re: ccbweb

              There is a term in the business for "highly processed": they call it "further processed". That's when they take processed food and bread it, shape it or whatever. Also referred to as "value added".

          2. The original comment has been removed
            1. (btw, even Rick Bayless endorsed Burger King)

              3 Replies
              1. re: Caralien

                Hey, don't get me wrong, I like me a little Burger King onion ring as a treat every now and then... but then again, I don't go around saying I don't eat processed foods, either.

                1. re: Firegoat

                  I just went to the link and saw her version of her "healthy" Buffalo Chicken Chili, which decidedly isn't:

                  Nutrient Total
                  Calories 6245.43
                  Pro (g) 343.05
                  Fat (g) 329.98
                  Carb (g) 509.94
                  Na (mg) 17244.67
                  vitA (IU) 59253.7
                  vitC (mg) 538.2
                  satF (g) 109.98
                  Chol (mg) 826.67

                  Sodium: 2874mg, 1040 calories, 55g fat, per serving
                  (divided total by 6 servings, info from


                  Compared to 8 Pizza Hut's hot wings (the only one they had in the system) with 3 oz blue cheese dressing:
                  Sodium 2676, 456 Calories, 61g fat

                  So yes, healthy is relative, as is processed