Eating processed foods

Processed foods aren't just microwave meals and other ready meals. The term 'processed food' applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience. 

This means you may be eating more processed food than you realise.

Processed foods aren't necessarily unhealthy, but anything that’s been processed may contain added salt, sugar and fat.

One advantage of cooking food from scratch at home is that you know exactly what is going into it, including the amount of added salt or sugar.

However, even homemade food sometimes uses processed ingredients. Read on to find out how you can eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet.

What counts as processed food?

Most shop-bought foods will have been processed in some way.

Examples of common processed foods include:

  • breakfast cereals
  • cheese
  • tinned vegetables
  • bread
  • savoury snacks, such as crisps 
  • meat products, such as bacon
  • "convenience foods", such as microwave meals or ready meals
  • drinks, such as milk or soft drinks

Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurising products. 

Dietitian Sian Porter says: "Not all processed food is a bad choice. Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.

"Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while tinned produce (choose those without added sugar and salt) can mean convenient storage, cooking and choice to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh."

What makes some processed foods less healthy?

Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to make their flavour more appealing and to prolong their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food's structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes.

This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts for these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.

Furthermore, a diet high in red and processed meat (regularly eating more than 90g a day) has also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Some studies have also shown that eating a large amount of processed meat may be linked to a higher risk of cancer or heart disease

What is processed meat?

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.

The Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, that you cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, with each about the size of half a slice of bread.

However, it's important to remember that the term "processed" applies to a very broad range of foods, many of which can be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

How can I eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet?

Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on the amount of processed foods you're eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

Adding tinned tomatoes to your shopping basket, for example, is a great way to boost your 5 a day. They can also be stored for longer and cost less than fresh tomatoes – just check the label to make sure there's no added salt or sugar.

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.

This type of label includes information on energy (kJ/kcal), fat, saturates (saturated fat), carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. It may also provide additional information on certain nutrients such as fibre. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food.

How do I know if a processed food is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt?

There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high or low in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. These are:

Total fat

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g 

Sugars

High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Salt

High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

For example, if you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, try to limit the amount of foods you eat that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.

If the processed food you want to buy has a nutrition label that uses colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green. So, when you're choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice. 

However, even healthier ready meals may be higher in fat and other additives than a homemade equivalent. That's not to say that homemade foods can't also be high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, but if you make the meal yourself, you'll have a much better idea of what's gone into it. You could even save yourself some money, too. 

When cooking food at home...

For tips on how to eat healthily on a budget, read our healthy recipe ideas and check out the Eat4Cheap challenge.

Page last reviewed: 01/06/2014

Next review due: 01/06/2017

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 302 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

The Eatwell Guide

If you want to get the balance of your diet right, use the Eatwell Guide. It shows you how much you should eat from each food group

Food labels

How to understand food labels and make healthier choices when you're shopping

Red meat and bowel cancer risk

Eating a lot of red meat can increase your risk of bowel cancer. Find out how much we should eat

Can we count on counting calories?

News analysis: Can we count on counting calories?

Behind the Headlines takes a look at the science behind calorie counting

Meal Mixer

Every Friday for four weeks, Change4Life will send you a free, tasty, healthy recipe you can cook at home from scratch for around £5 a meal