Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that good health comes from eating more fresh, whole foods than processed food – meaning that you eat fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, lean meats, nuts and seeds most of the time.

You are probably pretty clear on what fresh, whole foods are.

But what does the term ‘processed food’ actually mean?

And more to the point, is processed food a bad thing; or can it be a good thing? In this article we will:
– look at the definition more closely
– consider how and why we process foods
– look at what happens to food when we process it….

Then, you can decide for yourself.

Processed food meaning

Webster’s online dictionary gives three definitions and an antonym for the word ‘processed’:


– processed: subjected to a special process or treatment; e.g. “processed cheeses are easy to spread”
– processed: freed from impurities by processing; e.g. “refined sugar“; “refined oil”; Synonyms: refined
– processed: prepared or converted from a natural state by subjecting to a special process; “processed ores”


– unprocessed – not altered from an original or natural state; “unprocessed commodities”

Now, compare unprocessed – not altered from an original or natural state, with processed – altered or treated somehow.

In terms of food, processed is simply a natural food that has undergone some sort of treatment.

7 common ways we process food

Based on our definition, there are many ways to process food:
– Heating (e.g. dried and canned foods)*
– Milling (e.g. flour)*
– Pressure treating (e.g. milk)*
– Irradiating (e.g. herbs, spices)*
– Additives (e.g. noodles, dairy products)*
– De-husking and polishing (e.g. brown rice converted to white)
– Chopping (e.g. rolled oats to quick oats)
– Partial cooking (e.g. par-boiled rice)
* Source: Healthy Food Site

Why do we do this? Is it just about making something unhealthy, or are there other, more valid reasons for processing?

processed food meaning_2Top 4 reasons we process food

The sad truth is that fresh foods go rotten very quickly. Rotting is hastened by high temperature, humidity and contamination. Then those fresh, beautiful foods are quickly rendered inedible – and potentially harmful!

Without some sort of processing, how would we get enough fresh food to everybody, in even the remotest places in the world?

Considering this, the top 4 reasons we process food are:

1. Safety – processing can kill harmful bacteria or microorganisms

Safety is obviously important – an outbreak of E. coli or other bacteria/moulds in supermarket foods could create a big health issue.

2. Shelf life – processing can increase shelf life (e.g. untreated fats can go rancid)

Shelf life is really important. Fresh foods have to travel many miles before they arrive in your local supermarket and then, only remain fresh for a short period. Then start rotting. See #1 above.

Most fresh foods have a short shelf life compared with processed versions of the same food. Let’s consider fresh green peas as an example.

According to Still Tasty green peas are safe to eat:

– Fresh, within 3-5 days if kept in the refrigerator
– Frozen, within 12-18 months freezing
– Canned, within 2-5 years of canning

Maybe peas don’t grow near you and shipping them to your local supermarket is too expensive.

But you want peas! At least you can buy frozen or canned versions.  What have you got to lose?

Per 100g Fresh peas Frozen peas Canned peas
Protein 5.4g 5.2g 4.4g
Folate 65µg 53µg 44µg
Choline 28.4mg 27mg 0mg
Magnesium 33mg 26mg 17mg
Sodium 5mg 108mg 2mg
Vitamin C 40mg 18mg 9.6mg

You’ll notice that choline levels in canned peas are much lower than in fresh peas.

Choline is an essential nutrient that is used in making cell membranes, nerve transmission, metabolizing fat and creating betaine (which lowers inflammation). A choline deficiency increases the risk of cancer, dementia, cardiovascular disease.

But hey, what’s a little choline between friends? Or vitamin C for that matter?

In part 2 tomorrow I conclude this feature by also looking at further issues connected to these products and how we process such foods. 

Connect with Expert Melanie White.

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