What are processed foods?

Foods that are subjected to technological modifications either for preservation or for converting into ready-to-use/eat foods, eliminating laborious household procedures, are called “processed foods”. Some of the examples are ready mixes, dehydrated foods, pasta products, canned foods, confectioneries, bakery, dairy products and breakfast foods. Manufacture of processed foods requires technology application and machinery, and as a result, processed foods are expensive.

Do we need processed foods?

There is an increased demand for processed, ready-to-eat and convenience foods due to changes in lifestyle. As more and more women go to work outside, and families have become nuclear, consumption of processed foods, particularly in urban areas, will be on the increase. Today's consumer is looking for convenient, easy-to-cook, and ready-to-eat foods which require less time to prepare than traditional home-cooked foods. Food processing is must to preserve highly perishable products like milk, meat, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. Food processing increases the seasonal availability of foods and enables easy transportation and distribution over long distances.

Do processed foods contribute to nutrient intake?

Processed foods are generally consumed either as part of a meal, or as a snack item. Their contribution in terms of essential nutrients depends on the type of processing and fortification, the frequency of use, and the quantity consumed. Processed foods are generally refined and a majority of them are rich in fat or in salt/sugar, and are calorie dense. They lack dietary fibre and micronutrients. Thus, caution needs to be exercised when processed foods constitute a major part of the meal.

Breakfast cereals are increasingly being used in urban areas. Traditional breakfast items like idli, dosa, upma and roti are rich sources of nutrients. Puffed and parched rice products (eg. flaked rice) besides being crisp and tasty, are easily digestible. Food items like chips, candies, peppermints, chocolates, etc., which are popular among children, are considered as unhealthy since, they provide only empty calories often containing artificial colors and other additives. Their use should be discouraged.

Why should we restrict intake of unhealthy processed foods?

Frequent consumption of unhealthy processed food increases calorie intake without providing any nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Apart from being non- nutritious, processed foods also contain food additives. Food additives consumed beyond permissible limits may have adverse effects on health. The national food regulatory authorities periodically review these limits. Thus, consumption of processed foods may not only affect intake of nutrients, but in addition, increase the risk of exposure to various chemical additives.


  • Prefer traditional, homemade foods.

  • Avoid replacing meals with snack foods.

  • Limit consumption of sugar and unhealthy processed foods which provide only (empty) calories.

  • Prefer fortified processed foods.

  • Always read food labels regarding content of nutrients, shelf-life and the additives present.

(Source – Dietary guidelines for Indians, NIN)