Somewhere between the introduction of frozen OJ in the 1940s and the publishing of Michael Moss’ Sugar, Salt, Fat last year, public opinion of processed food seems to have made a 180° turn. There’s a reason that “the greatest thing since sliced bread” is an oft-uttered expression of appreciation for the development of new and better products. The national introduction of commercially baked and pre-sliced Wonder Bread in the 1930s was a time-saving advancement that was appreciated by American consumers—it was great—people loved it! And it was a processed food. Frozen orange juice that required only the addition of water, was a much-heralded creation that allowed for out-of-season juice consumption by everyone regardless of proximity to citrus orchards. And it’s a processed drink.

Indeed, food processing techniques (and the companies that develop and utilize them) have created a safer, more varied and more stable food supply for all of us. Yet, these days, the phrase “processed food” conjures up something entirely different in most peoples’ minds. It’s almost cliché (and very easy) to throw blame for the nation’s obesity epidemic and other health conditions on processed food. But, is the elimination of processed foods really the answer to our health woes?

How “processed” is processed food, anyway?

It’s very possible that my lunch of whole-grain pasta salad and bottle of carrot juice might not be your idea of a processed lunch at all. It is. This is because some people equate the term “processed food” with “junk” food or fast food.

While the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report defined processed foods, in part, as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity,” there are more explanatory definitions, such as the one from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). According to the IFT, food processing is the “treatment of food substances by changing their properties to preserve it, improve its quality or make it functionally more useful.” This is done through the “application of labor, machinery, energy and scientific knowledge” using “chemical, biological and mechanical processes.” Here is an easier way to think about it. All foods exist on a continuum of processing, ranging from the completely unprocessed (basically, the way Mother Nature offers them to us) to the highly processed (Mother Nature never even envisioned their creation).

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds us that technically, the “processing” of a food can range from a quick and minimal preparation and packaging (think washed, bagged baby carrots or trimmed meat cuts) to the more complicated creation of microwaveable, heat-and-eat entrees and dinners. Inbetween lie a whole lot of nutritious, convenient and wholesome foods that we rely on every day for eating pleasure and sustenance. And where are the people who don’t eat any processed foods? It’s nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t eat something that’s been processed in one way or another. In fact, many home-cooking techniques are forms of processing.

Processed food “pros” and “cons”

If you think about it, you’ll realize that there are many, many healthful processed foods in the world. What are some of the benefits that we’ve enjoyed from modern food processing? Well, pasteurized, canned and shelf-stable foods are safe and easily-stored year ‘round. Fortification of foods with extra nutrients (such as folate) provides essential nutrients that would otherwise be lacking in our diets. Freezing foods on-the-spot of harvest at their nutritional peak retains quality and nutrients. There are others, but these are the major ones. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the nutritional benefit of these foods when many of us are more concerned with problems related to over-consumption.

So, it’s clear that not all processed foods are unhealthful just by virtue of being processed in some manner. I know, I know, when someone speaks of the “evils” of processed food they’re usually not talking about frozen cauliflower, fortified milk or canned black beans. And, as Matthew Fox noted in a 2012 article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the public belief that processed foods contain unhealthful ingredients and can lead to health problems “…will not disappear on realizing that a peeled orange can be technically called processed. Nor should it, in its entirety. Negative conceptions concerning processed foods did not materialize out of nothing…” And he’s right. There certainly are some (ok, more than some) less-than-nutritious choices in the gigantic realm of processed food. But, one could really say the same thing about certain whole or more “natural” foods—some are more nutritious, better choices than others.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll look at the beneficial nutritional modifications the food industry has made in many processed foods, and whether decreasing our consumption of processed foods is the answer to our nation’s health woes.