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Processed foods

What are processed foods?

Processed foods are any foods that have been modified from their original fresh or whole state. Many foods we eat are processed in some way. They include:

  • bread
  • breakfast cereals
  • cheese
  • cakes and biscuits
  • drinks, such as milk or soft drinks
  • tinned fruits and vegetables
  • savory snacks, such as chips, sausage rolls and pies
  • meat products, such as bacon, sausage, ham, salami and paté
  • ready to eat meals (including frozen meals).

Why are foods processed?

Food can be processed for lots of reasons including; safety (like pasteurisation of milk), to extend the shelf life, increase the nutrient content (added vitamins and minerals), or to enhance the flavour profile, texture or appearance (sweeteners, salt, colours or other additives).

Basic ways to process food include:

  • freezing
  • canning
  • drying
  • preserving
  • fermentation.

Other techniques include the use of additives and preservatives or cooking under high pressures.  At an industrial scale, methods such as frying, hydrogenation, purification, heat treating and chemical modification are also frequently used.

Processed foods can provide people access to a wider range of food choices year round that can support or complement your diet, especially when whole or fresh foods aren't readily available.

To maintain or improve a healthy diet, knowing what's in the foods that you're eating or buying is key. Checking out the food label and choosing foods in line with dietary guidelines can help you to make decisions that support a healthy diet.

What to look out for when choosing processed foods

Around the world, certain types of foods and eating habits are linked with better overall health. Typically, this includes regular intake of whole fruit and vegetables, cereals and whole grains, low-fat dairy products, nuts, and legumes, some fish and less intake from processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages. Eating a diet with more whole, low or minimally processed foods, and less of the highly processed foods is known to improve overall health.

What the Dietary Guidelines say  

The Australian and New Zealand Governments advise limiting the intake of salts, added sugars and saturated fats as part of a healthy and balanced diet. This includes:

  • biscuits and cakes
  • pastries
  • pies
  • processed meats
  • fried foods
  • commercial burgers and pizzas
  • potato chips
  • confectionary
  • sugar-sweetened beverages.

In New Zealand, the Eating and Activity Guidelines recommend choosing foods that are mostly whole and less processed including foods which:

  • are close to their natural state, like fresh vegetables, and fruit, raw nuts, fish, chicken or lean red meat, or
  • which have had some processing but have kept most of their nutritional properties, for example frozen whole fruits and vegetables.

In Australia, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend choosing foods from the five food groups every day, including:

  • plenty of vegetables.
  • fruit
  • grains including mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties
  • lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, tofu, legumes and beans
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese.

Food labels

Labels on packaged foods can provide useful information to inform the choices that you make in the supermarket and help you to limit the amount of salt, sugars and fats you consume.

Most packaged foods sold in Australia and New Zealand require a nutrition information panel (NIP) on the label. The NIP gives you information on the average amount of protein, fat (including saturated), carbohydrates, sugars and salt.

A list of ingredients including food additives can also be found on a food label. The type and number of ingredients listed may give you some clues about the level and type of processing involved in the production. The ingredients list can help you to understand exactly what is in the food and make more informed food choices –including those you wish to limit or avoid . 

For more information and guidelines about good health and nutrition in Australia and New Zealand, see:

More information

Page last updated 11 April 2024