What’s Your Definition Of Processed Food?

Processed food has a bad rap. But if you consider what the term processed actually means, you’d probably agree with me that not all processed foods are necessarily unhealthy.

Several years ago, I asked a handful of people from various backgrounds and professions how they defined “processed” food. Here were their responses:

Altered from its natural state.” – Sustainable Food Center Community Relations Director

Any food that has additives in it.” – Teacher 

Food that has been handled, cooked, added to, preservatives added.” – CPA 

If it has an ingredient on the label that I don’t have in my pantry.” – Registered Dietitian 

Artificial, Chemicals, No nutrients, Preservatives, Refined, Fat” – Technology Product Manager

Anything that is not grown from the earth.” – Nursing Home Administrator

Something that is already mostly prepared…something you just heat up and eat or just eat out of a bag…usually something unhealthy.” – Pharmacist 

They grind things up, put fillers/by-products into it to give it bulk, and then reshape it into something they think looks appetizing.” – Realtor

I would describe a ‘processed food’ as one that has had many of the natural nutrients stripped away, and many unnecessary ingredients added (e.g. dyes, sugar, salt, soy lecithin, etc.).” – Registered Dietitian

A food that has been altered in some way – could have been simply canned, frozen, or man-made…changed in some way from the whole, raw food.” Registered Dietitian 

And perhaps my favorite: “Shitty.” – Entrepreneur 

Simple and to the point, don’t you think?

Now compare these real people definitions to the industry’s regulatory guideline:

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321] defined processed food as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.”

By that definition, if you cut corn off the cob and freeze it you’ve processed it. If you can tomato juice on your stove-top using tomatoes from your garden, it’s technically processed. If you smoke salmon in your backyard smoker, it also becomes a processed food. All of these foods possess health-promoting properties, and yet they are considered processed. Do you see the conundrum?

The practice of preserving food is not new. Throughout history, methods like smoking, salt-curing, freezing, fermenting, sun drying, pickling and canning have been used to ensure that food was available during times of scarcity – like through winter or when growing conditions were poor. Any method used to preserve food is a form of processing.

I’ve often wondered why we have such an aversion to the word processed. After all, it’s a universal practice among all cultures across the globe. What is it about processing exactly that has us so upset?

It becomes more clear when you think about modern food preservation practices compared to the ones of earlier generations. Large-scale manufacturing operations as far back as the Chicago meat-packing industry times have quite a different agenda than our grandmothers. Their objectives go beyond preserving nutrients and toward the extension of shelf-life and profit margins. The problem with that is making products more shelf-stable requires them to be broken down into unrecognizable substances, stripped of components that tend to spoil quickly, and then reassembled (often with fillers, colorings, preservatives, and sometimes synthetic nutrients) into new products. These real food doppelgangers are ubiquitous on our grocery shelves today.

One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever read about our modern food supply came from Joel Salatin: “…If we removed all the food items in a supermarket that would not have been available before 1900, the shelves would be bare.”


While they probably wouldn’t be completely bare, where has all the real food gone? And why are we so fascinated with look-alike food products instead of real food? I’m constantly amazed by the number of new dazzling products that appear regularly on supermarket shelves. Why have they become so much more appealing to us? Has the line become so blurred that we’re not even able to identify real food from processed food anymore?

What is your definition of processed food?