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You’ve likely heard horror stories about processed food. People call processed food the enemy of the diet. Though some can be part of a healthy diet, too much processed food can wreak havoc to the human body. From the good to the bad, here’s everything you need to know about processed food.

What Is Processed Food?Chicken in a processing factory.

Processed food is any food that has been altered for our consumption. Because we live in a society where the consumer typically lives far from places where food is actually grown, food is often altered for storage purposes. For example, preservatives can increase the shelf life of the food. However, some food is also processed for safer consumption. These kinds of processing can actually make the food better for you to eat, as they remove dangerous bacteria. But processed foods become hazardous when they contain added sugar, trans fat, and sodium.

Good Processed FoodsMilk.

Lots of foods are processed, but not all are bad. Milk, for example, is pasteurized before it reaches your grocery shelves. This kills off harmful bacteria, allowing for safe consumption. Milk is also homogenized, a process intended to keep fat from separating.

Some minimally processed foods can still be healthy in moderation. Breakfast cereals, for example, contain processed grains. If they contain whole grains, these cereals may still be healthy. However, processed cereals also often contain too much added sugar. And the next time you’re picking up orange juice at the store, check the label. Some companies fortify OJ with calcium, which is even better for you than the juice alone. Dried fruits, roasted nuts, seeds, and 100% whole grain bread are all quite good for you as long as they don’t contain added flavors. These flavors are packed with sodium and other chemicals. Make sure to check the label for added and artificial ingredients!

Frozen processed TV dinner.Bad Processed Foods

Processed foods become bad for your health when packed with heavy amounts of preservatives, sodium, sugar, and trans fat. These harmful substances can be found in most canned foods. Also, pasta made from refined white flour instead of whole grain flour isn’t beneficial to your health. Packaged snacks often contain astronomical amounts of sugar, sodium and fat. You should also stay away from packaged cakes and cookies and cake mixes. Most frozen dinners, such as fish sticks and pot pies, contain a lot of sodium as well.  At Market Table, however, our prepared foods and freezer meals are prepared in-house with locally sourced ingredients, so there’s no need for preservatives. Also, our fresh, healthy produce and meat is packed with flavor, so we don’t add artificial flavors as well.

Nutrition label. How to Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Processed Food

You may be wondering how you can tell if food is moderately or extremely processed. Thankfully, these tricks can help you decide what’s okay to eat and what you should avoid.

The best way to tell the difference between something you should and should not be eating is the ingredient list. As a rule of thumb, go for foods with less ingredients — and with ingredients you can pronounce, rather than complicated chemical names. If you can pronounce all of the ingredients and know what they all mean, then you’re probably in the clear.

Fresh vegetables, fruits, and greens are generally okay to eat, as they’re chopped and bagged for your convenience. Some preservatives are added to keep them from wilting or browning, but they’re not typically extremely harmful. On the other hand, you should avoid processed meats, which contain dangerous preservatives.

The worst processed foods you can find in the grocery store are frozen dinners like lasagna, pizza, etc. If that sentence makes you stress about what you can feed your kids, don’t worry! Market Table has you covered. From our Cheeseburger Bake to our Pizza Casserole, we make healthy, hearty versions of the frozen foods your kids crave.

Text By Martha Kendall Custard