Processed Foods

Processed Foods: How Processed Is Too Processed?

By Colette Vartanian, MS, RD

Whole food and “real” food diets have recently been a popular topic of discussion in the sports world. Many dietitians and sports professionals have adopted the “food first” principle. But, how do we guide athletes to make appropriate choices to fuel themselves with the limitless number of products found in stores?

Food First Principle
Nutrition experts agree that whole foods are the preferred food choice when fueling for sport. Whole foods are naturally nutrient dense, therefore providing great sources of naturally occurring fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Choosing foods like an omelette with potatoes and fruit for breakfast versus a ready to drink protein shake is a great example of the food first approach. Although this is the standard we would like to impose onto our athletes, there may be a need for processed foods in some instances during training.

Why Food Is Processed

A majority of foods we consume are processed in one way or another. Food may be processed for convenience and accessibility as well as to improve food safety, provide shelf stability without refrigeration, increase shelf life, improve palatability or to assist with the ability to be used in culinary applications.

Levels of Food Processing

There are four primary categories of food processing, according to a study designed by Steele (2016). This list includes most but not all foods of each category:

Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods

Food staples such as fresh, dry or frozen fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, legumes, meat, pasta, fish, plain yogurt and milk.

Processed Culinary Ingredients

This category includes ingredients such as table sugar, oils, fats, salt and other culinary ingredients like extracts or spices which are used in the kitchen to make minimally processed foods.

Processed Foods

This includes foods made with the addition of salt/sugar or other substances of culinary use, such as canned meats and fish, pickled vegetables, simple breads and cheese.

Ultra Processed Foods

Foods that are formulations of several ingredients, including food substances not used in culinary preparations. In particular, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives and preservatives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, or to disguise undesirable qualities in the final product. Ultra Processed foods include foods like breakfast cereal, desserts, sauces and dressings, potato products, frozen or shelf stable ready to eat/heat foods, instant and canned soups, salty snacks, fruit drinks and packaged snacks. A study conducted by the NIH (Hall, 2019) observed that people consuming ultra-processed foods have been seen to consume 500 more calories per day versus minimally processed foods. It was concluded that this may be due to the additional carbohydrates and fats that are used to produce ultra-processed foods. 

How to Determine Healthier Options & Make Food Swaps

Ultra-processed foods are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) in moderation but, like supplements in the sports world, are not heavily monitored. Additives and preservatives have increased by the ten folds since being introduced into the American diet. Processed foods do provide versatility for an athlete who may not have adequate culinary skills, while still providing quality nutrition to fuel without the financial strain that occurs with relying on dining out. Not everything that comes in packaging is unhealthy and some foods, in fact, provide just as much nutrition as non-packaged foods. For example, we know canned or frozen vegetables have equivalent nutrient value to their fresh counterparts.

Quality and quantity on ingredient lists are very important factors when it comes to determining if a food is a good option for consumption. When grocery shopping, opt for foods with shorter ingredient lists, such as seven ingredients or less, as well as products that only contain recognizable ingredients that you may find in your own kitchen, including those in the Processed Culinary Ingredients category above. In addition, pay attention to the order of the ingredients listed, as ingredients are ordered by weight in descending order. For example, a piece of bread may list flour as their first ingredient then water and salt, meaning flour makes up the largest component and comprises the greatest percentage of the bread by weight, with salt as the least.

Also, making conscious choices for food swaps when applicable is an additional approach for optimizing nutrient density. For instance, looking at multiple products within a category to identify those with minimal ingredients, low saturated and trans fats, omitting those containing highly-processed ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, or foods with artificial coloring and preservatives. 

A lot of athletes are typically on the go, especially if they are students, which may require some need for processed foods. Encouraging athletes to check ingredient labels when purchasing products ensures that they are getting the best product to aid in performance and support overall lifelong health.

Some examples of food swaps could include:

  • Fruit canned in 100% juice instead of syrup
  • Homemade or refrigerated salad dressings instead of shelf-stable dressings
  • Chocolate milk instead of a ready to drink protein shake
  • Homemade energy balls instead of packaged granola bars
  • Dried fruit like mangoes, cherries or raisins instead of fruit snacks

If you are still confused about what to recommend or what foods to swap, a helpful  resource is the Environmental Working Group, which scores many foods based on nutrition, ingredients and processing concerns.  Check out and through their downloadable app; EWG’s Healthy Living.

This article was written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association Registered Dietitian (RD).  To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to


Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … & Fletcher, L. A. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.

Steele, E. M., Baraldi, L. G., da Costa Louzada, M. L., Moubarac, J. C., Mozaffarian, D., & Monteiro, C. A. (2016). Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ open, 6(3).

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