The True Definition of Processed Food

By Bridgette Readel
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The term processed food brings to mind the image of neon orange cheese, stringy canned asparagus or worse.

But the real definition of processed food is any food that’s been altered in some way by either mechanical or chemical operations to change or preserve it.1 And those methods of “processing” aren’t as diabolical as you may think. They include freezing, canning, baking or drying techniques that actually sound rather homespun and domestic. So, perhaps we can alter our thinking to look for minimally processed foods, including:

  • Milk, which has been pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria.
  • Oils, because the olives, canola seeds and other sources of what we know to be healthy oils, all go through some sort of processing — from pressing to refining.
  • Beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D and canned tomatoes high in calcium, iron and the antioxidant, lycopene, because processing can make some foods even more nutritious.

In order to have the “best processed foods,” let’s train ourselves to do more cooking and meal prepping, which allows us to control the amount of salt, sugar and fat in our meals. Also (pro tip!), read labels while grocery shopping to see what and how much of these nutrients have been added to your purchase.

What steps do I take at home to utilize minimally processed foods? I’m fortunate to have space for a garden, so I’m able to can, freeze and preserve much of the harvest for use in other months. If you’re limited on space, think about starting out small, maybe with a container tomato plant! See below for my personal home canned tomato recipe!

Oven-dried tomatoes in garlic olive oil


  • 16 plum tomato halves
  • Garlic olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh rosemary sprigs
  • Fresh thyme sprig


Cooking instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 200 degrees
  • Place plum tomato halves on a greased baking sheet
  • Sprinkle the plum tomatoes with garlic olive oil and sea salt
  • Bake until tomatoes are shriveled but still soft (about 5 hours); remove and let cool
  • Once the plum tomatoes are completely cool, transfer them to  pint or half pint jars (I recommend wide mouth jars) 
  • Layer the oven-dried tomatoes with fresh rosemary and thyme sprigs
  • Use a spoon or wooden skewer to pack tightly until the jar has been filled up 1/2” from the top
  • Add enough olive oil (or garlic olive oil if you prefer) to completely cover the tomatoes and herbs
  • Seal tightly, and store in refrigerator for up to one month — they can be chopped to use in salads, pasta dishes and more



1Source: Food Preservation. 2003.