Ask Dr Dairy: Is There Room for Processed Foods in a Healthy Eating Plan?

The short answer is: Yes! There is room for processed foods in a healthy eating plan. But let’s look more closely at the reasons why.

Many of the foods we eat every day have been processed in some way to help keep them safe and fresh. Pasteurized milk, washed and bagged lettuce, and frozen vegetables are examples of processed foods that are nutrient-rich contributions to healthy eating plans.

With such a wide variety of foods available today, it’s understandable that people are looking for ways to help make wise food choices. Food processing has been around for 2 million years and has several benefits for our food supply, according to the International Food Information Council. It can help make food safe to eat, convenient to use and preserve its nutrients and freshness. So rather than judge food primarily by whether it is processed, consider if it contains important nutrients to support a healthy, active lifestyle.

Health-conscious shoppers around the world are looking for foods and ingredients to support their healthy lifestyles, a recent survey found. Most people responding to the survey said they want foods with easy-to-understand product information, naturally derived colors and flavors and no preservatives. While simple mantras such as “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” and “count chemicals, not calories” sound catchy, they may not help people build a well-balanced, nutrient-rich eating plan or achieve health goals.

Some foods have added flavors, colors, preservatives or other additives that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe for specific uses or are generally recognized as safe for specific uses. Each ingredient added to a food has a function. For example, sodium phosphate is an ingredient with several functions in dairy foods. It helps with the melting of processed cheese, it has antimicrobial properties that improve food safety and it prevents dairy protein from sticking to heating surfaces when making high-protein beverages.

Food innovation is another benefit of modern food processing. Food developers use principles of food science and processing to create new foods. Fairlife ultra-filtered milk is made using a patented filtration process to separate out the five basic parts of milk (water, vitamins and minerals, lactose, protein and butterfat) and recombine them into beverages with more calcium and protein and less lactose – attributes that some people want. Food processing can also mean adding key nutrients into foods. For example, many yogurt brands including Dannon and Yoplait fortify some of their yogurts with vitamin D. Lactaid and other lactose-free milk have added the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose in milk so that people who are lactose-intolerant can still enjoy the same nine essential nutrients from milk.  

As the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states, “Everything you eat and drink over time matters. The right mix can help you be healthier in the future.” The DGA provides examples of several healthy eating patterns, all of which include low-fat and fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese. MyPlate provides guidance on food choices as well.

Health and wellness professionals who understand why some food is processed and new food products created can help demystify food processing for their clients. You might start by sharing the handout What is a Processed Food? from IFIC.