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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 Health.com 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. (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 http://www.nat.uiuc.edu/nat.pdl


                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

            2. It's all relative. To me, whether it's 'processed' depends on how recognisable it is (the shorter the ingredients list the better) and how many different treatments its had to go through to get to you. Just because something's lightly processed that doesn't make it evil... but the more they mess with it, the worse it gets.

              Traditional potato chips are not processed food. They're actual recognisable slices of potato fried and salted for your convenience. But Pringles definitely ARE because they're made of reconstituted powders etc.

              I'd say that regular old-fashioned orange juice is not processed food. It's been pasteurised for safety and had citric acid added to preserve it, but it's still basically orange. The stuff they have now has been thoroughly messed with. Ditto for milk. Old-fashioned milk is good... that new-fangled 'tastes like full-cream but has no milk-fat' is processed beyond recognition and there is no way in Hades that I ever want to taste it!

              Regular old-fashioned bread from the bakery is not highly processed. It has a recognisable (and short) list of ingredients. It also doesn't keep for very long, which is why they add stabilisers and preservatives etc etc etc to it in the factory, making things like Wonderbread highly processed.

              Actually, the key word to most of my descriptions is 'old-fashioned'. They just keep on finding new ways to mess with our food, don't they!

              1. I think Michael Pollan put it best in some of the interviews he did around the time his IN DEFENSE OF FOOD came out: if your great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized it as food, you probably shouldn't eat it.

                3 Replies
                  1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                    Good quote--one great-grandmother was born in 1886, and canned foods were available then, as was polished rice, refined flour & sugar, surimi, etc.

                    Still, there are a lot of people whose great-grandparents were born in the mid-20th century, when a lot of the aforementioned processed foods were invented or became staples due to rationing.

                    1. re: Caralien

                      I should have added that my great grandmother lived to nearly 104, so anything created by 1886 and through 1990 would be fair game.

                  2. Processing is a long continuum perhaps starting with traditional dried fruit and dried or smoked meats and fish to pickles and preserves and simple cheeses and beers and wines and spices - all among the oldest processes on the planet. People stated making all sorts of breads - first unleavened and then leavened. Canning, dried pastas, and the like are intermediate. Skipping forward in time, there is now an infinite variety of foods processed for convenience, long shelf life, high fat and salt or sugar, and low cost. I stay away from this last bit.

                    1. Having never had cable, I've never actually seen Rachel Ray outside of an online ad for Dunkin' Donuts, and therefore have missed the reasons people strongly dislike her, but I'd say that in this case, she was probably using the layman's definition of "processed foods" to mean things like Doritos, LeanCuisines, and...well, other things like that. Mark Bittman uses it as well, usually to refer to things that have ingredients that are virtually impossible to pronounce, or are unrecognizable to the home cook. I would certainly think hot dogs could make this like, but salami, bacon, cheese...these things don't strike me as what most people would commonly refer to "processed foods". Certainly they are processed for preservation, but they aren't significantly removed from their original ingredients (pork, milk). As I type this, I realize there's an argument to be made that they can be - my nephew eats "Lunchables" and they have some form of "salami" that contains like 92 ingredients. BUT, generally speaking, I think most Americans who toss "processed food" around are refering to the chemical-laden foods that can sit on store shelves or in your fridge for months on end without growing mold.

                      And, I think you might have stumbled upon one of the keys in advertising! Just because a celebrity endorses it doesn't mean the celeb uses it!

                      1. I just use it as an umbrella term for foods that have unnecessary chemicals added to it.

                        ...please tell me you did NOT make a hot dog salad o.O.

                        1. You bring up a great topic, Firegoat. I think the situation is that Rachel (and her editors) probably realize that the vast American public, DOES NOT eat as she does, ie. "non-processed" foods, thus, giving the public what they want, and also being a little kitchsy while doing it.

                          I tend to eat, as one of the quotes said, as unadultered a diet as possible. Now, we're in real life, so obviously, there are chips, cheeseburgers, the occasional regular soft drink, etc. etc., but for the most part, as long as those are *sometimes* I think they are ok. My *big* food resolution this year is to finally get rid of margarine from my diet. It's really the only constant unhealthy item in my diet, and it's like crack for me. I'm starting to de-tox from it by using real butter (very small amounts), tapenade, and good olive oil, and cheese. Not easy, when you're so used to it, but the more I read about how it's made, and the ill effects of it, the more it makes me want to stay away.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Raquel

                            But is it appropriate to preach one thing in a public forum, (i.e. burger queen, hot dog salad, pimp burger king, nabisco, donuts) yet state that you, yourself, would never eat such things.
                            Especially when you have a big foundation against childhood obesity.
                            Just seems like an odd mix.

                            1. re: Firegoat

                              Honestly, I think it may be more of a sign that RR is changing her approach (trying to re brand herself) more than anything else. I haven't seen her in a DD of BK commercial in a while. The other night I watched an episode of 30 minutes meal, out of curiosity. I think it was a newer episode (looked like she had lost a lot of weight) and she made lots of comments about how the ingredients were produced, and how individual cooks might want to do more or less work (i.e. she used pre-shredded carrots for the salad, but said people watching at home might want to add a minute or 2 to prep and grate their own).

                              So, hot dog salad is the old Rachel and avoiding processed foods is the new Rachel.

                              1. re: mpjmph

                                If RR has lost weight, it's not from eating her "healthy" buffalo chicken chili mac (1000+ calories & over 2500mg of sodium per serving), but that is an episode from last June...

                              2. re: Firegoat

                                You have a point.

                                BUT, the days of 'blaming' food companies, chefs, restaurants, etc. etc. are over. Today, we have no excuse to eat unhealthy foods, unless of course we want to. We have an abundance of information at our finger tips that tells us what is healthy and what is not (barring any unforseen outbreaks, and the like).

                                Also, I think the vast majority of the public is sharp enough to put 2 and 2 together, and if they don't like what someone like Rachel Ray is doing, then they'll just not watch her TV show anymore, and not buy her books - if they think she is being hypocritical. Perhaps the foundation is to dissolve the sins?.... But I'd like to think it comes from a better place than that.

                            2. The food science definition and mine is that a processed food is any food that has under gone a process. Ex: Apples that are unwaxed are unprocessed, but lettuce in bags
                              (they've undergone a chlorine wash) is in fact a processed food. I think she means that she stays away from heavily processed foods like, dunkin donuts, burger king, hot dogs, etc.

                              1. I can't imagine why anyone would take anything RR says as "technically correct". I rarely watch, but on one episode she was explaining why she would never buy dented cans, just wasn't willing to risk her family's health with food poisoning. Evidently someone on the technical crew talked to her over the break, and after she said that she had just learned that she should avoid bulging cans, rather than dented ones. So from then on, just to be safe she would avoid any cans that looked odd or some such thing. I turned the show off then.

                                I suspect her thoughts on "processed food" are just as poorly informed.

                                1. My definition of processed food is something that got ground up and mechanically regurgitated so many times it was once a paste that is now solid from the cooking phase. But for catchall of processed foods are generally over salted, seadoned, nitrated or MSG'd to death.