All foods are not created equal. Natural or organic foods, also known as whole foods, undergo no artificial processes from the field to your refrigerator. Processed foods, on the other hand, are often heavily modified. Here's what you should know about processed foods before your next trip to the supermarket.

What does "processed" mean?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a processed food as "any food other than a raw agricultural commodity." In other words, a processed food is any food that's been altered from its natural state. This includes foods that are pasteurized, cooked, heated, packaged, or otherwise changed from the state in which they are found in nature. Processed foods may also include added preservatives, flavors, and other additives such as sugar, fat, and salt. A minimally processed food is a food that's been processed but retains most of its natural physical, chemical, and nutritional properties.

Why are foods processed?
Adding preservatives to food slows spoilage due to mold, fungi, air, bacteria, and yeast. It also helps delay browning in cut fruits or vegetables and controls foodborne illness, such as botulism. Foods may be processed to maintain or improve nutritional value. Vitamins and minerals are often added to make up for what is lost during processing, or to compensate for deficiencies in the average diet. Finally, processing food can enhance its taste.

Why are processed foods unhealthy?
Processed foods often contain more than desired amounts of trans and saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, which can lead to obesity and poor health overall. Certain processed foods are stripped of the essential nutrients found in their natural form.

How can you tell which foods are processed?
It's extremely important to read ingredient labels. Generally, the more ingredients a food product contains, the more processed it is. Natural or organic food, on the other hand, will have fewer ingredients. Try to avoid food containing any of the following ingredients:

  • Artificial colors
  • Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, NutraSweet, sorbitol, sucralose (unless you're diabetic)
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils

How can you choose healthier foods?
When looking to buy the healthiest foods available, nothing beats going organic. Organic foods have undergone no processing and are shipped exactly the way nature intended. As with processed foods, it's important to read the label. Foods that are labeled "USDA Organic" have to be at least 95 percent organic, meaning they could have undergone minimal processing. It's best to look for foods that are labeled "100% USDA Organic." The healthiest food tends to be on the outside aisles or the perimeter of the supermarket, while processed food tends to be in the middle aisles.

Another way to choose healthier foods is to shop at farmer's markets or, if possible, to grow your own fruits and vegetables. If you have to buy processed foods, look for those that contain whole grains or are fortified with vitamins and minerals. The foods that pose the highest health risk are milk products, eggs, and processed meats, including chicken and farmed fish.