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You’ve likely heard that the best way to live the healthiest possible life is to limit your consumption of “highly processed foods.” The fact that whole-wheat bread, homemade soup, or chopped apple are all considered processed meals may surprise some. They are to blame for the rise in diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. But do we know what is processed food?
It is commonly accepted that processed foods are inferior to whole foods. They might draw up an image of a packaged food product with a long list of components, possibly even some food additives or substances approved for use in food, like artificial flavors or colors.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed foods have undergone modifications from their original state. This includes any raw agricultural commodity that has undergone washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other processes that change the food from its original state.
Other components, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or chemicals permitted for use in food items, such as salt, sugar, and fats, may be added to the food.
Almost all foods have undergone some form of processing. For instance, manufacturers must process dry beans to increase their shelf life. Therefore, it’s necessary to establish that just because a meal has been processed in some form, it doesn’t automatically make it a highly processed food.
1. Categories of Processed Foods
Researchers have categorized processed foods into four groups based on the degree of processing to make it easier to comprehend food processing. They achieved this by utilizing NOVA, a system for categorizing foods created by scientists at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.
NOVA Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Minimally processed foods have undergone minor modifications primarily for preservation, but these modifications do not significantly impact the food’s nutritional value and remain in their natural state.
Some foods may have undergone roasting, boiling, or pasteurization to extend their shelf life or make them safe to eat. This group includes fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts. Some foods must be prepared to be safe, like milk, which must be pasteurized to eliminate harmful bacteria. Other foods, such as pressing seeds to generate oil, must be prepared before use.
NOVA Group 2: Foods from group 1 or natural sources that have been processed for use in cuisine. Ingredients are produced by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling a minimally processed food. Foods like salt, maple syrup, and olive oil fall under this category. Group 1 foods are mostly prepared and cooked using group 2 foods.
NOVA Group 3: Processed foods, such as those produced by combining salt, sugar, or other components from group 2 foods to group 1 foods. Examples include cheese, fresh bread, and fruit covered in syrup. These foods often contain at least two or three ingredients and are ready to eat immediately. In addition, morning cereals may have additional fiber, while milk and juices may be fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
NOVA Group 4: Ultra-processed foods or heavily processed foods. These products are frequently heavy in sugars, refined grains, fats, preservatives, and salt and are designed to be convenient, highly appealing, and inexpensive. Almost none of the foods or ingredients from group 1 are present in these.
It is believed that these processed foods are created purposely to boost cravings, causing consumers to overeat them and buy more. Most of the time, they require little additional preparation before eating. Examples are soft drinks, cookies, crackers, potato chips, breakfast cereals, frozen pizza, savory packaged snacks, and reconstituted meat products.
Processed foods often appear in a box or bag and have multiple ingredients listed. It is not practical for most of us to eliminate all processed foods. Some are highly nutritious and contribute to a healthy diet, such as whole grains that have already been cooked, Greek yogurt, nut butter, organic stock, tofu, frozen vegetables, canned tomatoes, canned fruits, and canned fish.
Our diet significantly impacts our health, and ultra-processed foods like candy, soft drinks, pizza, and chips don’t have the necessary amounts of beneficial nutrients. Our diet’s overall nutritional quality declines the more ultra-processed items we consume.
2. Unprocessed Foods or Minimally Processed Foods
Unprocessed or Minimally processed foods have had little processing and have undergone minor modifications primarily for preservation reasons, without significantly altering the food’s nutritional value. It entails washing and removing undesirable or inedible components, grinding, chilling, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and vacuum packaging.
The edible components of newly isolated plants, animals, fungus, and algae are also considered unprocessed or minimally processed foods in the NOVA food classification system.
These techniques are intended to preserve natural foods, make them fit for storage, or otherwise make them safe, palatable, or more enjoyable to eat.
In addition to processed culinary components and occasionally some processed foods, many unprocessed or barely processed foods are prepared and served as dishes or meals in canteens, restaurants, and homes.
These minimally processed foods are available in many non-fast food restaurants and prepared at home. For instance, they can be served as a salad on their own or paired with other components like butter or olive oil to create more elaborate dishes or meals.
Animal foods are thus generally good suppliers of different amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, but they have little to no dietary fiber. They frequently have high energy density and harmful forms of fat.
Foods from plants often have a low-calorie density and are rich providers of dietary fiber. Several are excellent providers of amino acids, and many are abundant in various minerals and bioactive substances.
3. Ultra Processed Foods
Foods that have been packaged and created by food manufacturers utilizing many manufactured ingredients rather than real foods are considered ultra-processed or highly processed foods. Combining those ingredients results in an edible product, but in no way does it preserve the nutritional value or quality of the original foods.
The various phases and industries involved in the process enable the production of ultra-processed foods. The first step is to fractionate entire meals into components like sugars, oils, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and fiber. These chemicals are frequently created by puréeing or grinding animal corpses, typically from intensive livestock farming, and a select group of high-yield plant foods (such as corn, wheat, soya, cane, or beet).
Ultra-processed foods include hot or cold packaged snacks, pre-prepared meals, desserts, and drinks. Typically, they contain lengthy lists of components, many of which you won’t be familiar with, such as bulking, de-foaming, emulsifying, and bleaching agents.
Some foods now classified as ultra-processed were initially produced using only group 1 food and salt, sugar, or other ingredients from group 2.
As a result, it would fall under the NOVA category of processed foods. But most of them are ultra-processed foods as they are now formulated. For instance, pre-made animal goods like hot dogs and burgers, commercially wrapped bread, boxed cakes, and pies.
Despite having a similar appearance to home-cooked meals, packaged ready-to-eat foods like French fries, pizza, spaghetti, and beef are ultra-processed due to their formulations and components pre-preparation. These foods are typically consumed at fast food restaurants or home.
Foods that have been heavily processed frequently have harmful amounts of added sugar, sodium, and fat. These substances enhance the flavor of the food we consume, but consuming too much can result in major health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.
Ultra-processed foods are calorie dense, meaning they are simple for our systems to digest, causing a quick rise and quick fall in blood sugar levels. We are motivated to consume more because we feel hungry and lethargic. Ultra-processed meals also stimulate the parts of the brain that make us want more since they are designed to taste nice. We thus eat too many calories.
The absence of nutrients in these foods is another issue, in addition to weight gain. They are highly processed food. Therefore, the majority of the nutrients are removed. If nutrients are listed in the ingredient list, they have been reintroduced. This is a common occurrence in cereals with added vitamins and minerals.
They are not automatically healthy just because they have been enriched with nutrients. Even though it has been processed, it still lacks the essential nutrients found in whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
4. Are all Processed Foods Bad for Health?
Not all processed foods are unhealthy; some foods and beverages need to be processed to be safe to eat. To get rid of dangerous microorganisms, milk is pasteurized, for instance.
The fermentation of milk to create yogurt’s thick, creamy texture is another processing step. However, before buying, make sure to read the nutritional label because some flavored yogurts are spiked with artificial sweeteners and tastes.
Foods with little processing are also good for you. Foods that have undergone minimal processing include canned beans, frozen fruit, sliced fruit and vegetables, packed salads, roasted nuts, and canned fruit.
These items aren’t processed by adding refined sugars, saturated fats, or sugar substitutes during preparation. These items are merely packaged differently instead.
Eating processed foods and staying healthy can be done by keeping a balanced diet that consists primarily of real foods and little-to-no processed foods. Limit processed foods high in added sugar, salt, and refined carbs if you want to change your eating habits. Here are some examples of processed foods you should avoid incorporating into a healthy diet.
1. Soft drinks: These include sweetened beverages like sodas, energy drinks, and sugary drinks like sweet tea and lemonade, which are loaded with sugar and artificial flavors.
Due to artificial coloring, these drinks are available in a range of vibrant colors, including lime green and hot pink. Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and inflammatory illnesses have all been related to the overconsumption of these processed foods.
2. Sweetened breakfast cereals: Most cereals contain refined carbohydrates and extra sugars. These cereals include a lot of added sugar, which causes your insulin and blood sugar levels to jump and then plummet.
You will then feel the need for another sugary food. You can choose an option among cereals that have undergone minimum processing, like all-natural granola.
3. Deli meats: Processed meat, like ham, turkey, salami, and bologna, are high in fat and sodium. Additionally, these processed meats have unhealthful chemical preservatives that should not be consumed regularly. You can substitute fresh chicken, roasted turkey, or roast beef the next time you make a sandwich for lunch.
4. Frozen meals: Frozen food contains a lot of sodium and fat, including frozen pizza, lasagnas, and chicken nuggets, and is typically ready to eat. If you want to stock your freezer with healthy options, frozen veggies may be sautéed or roasted as a side dish, and prepared soups are simple to freeze and reheat on a chilly or rainy day.
5. White bread: The flour used to make white bread has undergone extensive processing and contains food additives that raise sugar levels. White bread is a processed carbohydrate that lacks vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Refined carbohydrates have all their nutritious value removed, making them empty calories. A healthier alternative is whole wheat bread.
5. Role of Added Sugars
Sugars are present in some foods naturally, such as milk and fruit. The sugars that aren’t present naturally in a meal or beverage but are added during processing or preparation are known as added sugars. They increase caloric intake but little else. They could result in weight gain. Sugar is frequently added to processed or packaged meals and beverages.
But there are numerous names and forms for sugar. Ones like glucose, fructose, and sucrose may be names you are familiar with. Others are trickier to pin down. This component may be challenging to identify on labels due to food manufacturers’ frequent use of sugars with odd names.
Examining the ingredients list on a product’s label and observing the dietary guidelines is the best approach to determine whether it has added sugar. Ingredients are given in weight order. Both total and added sugar are listed for each serving on the Nutrition Facts label. It’s an effective approach to determining your daily sugar intake.
To avoid consuming too much sugar, keep an eye out for the following additional sugars on product labels: Cane sugar, barley malt, and coconut sugar. The following beverages frequently have added sugars: Regular soda, fruit juice, sports drinks, and energy drinks. Ice cream, candies, pies, cakes, and other sweets are examples of desserts. There are numerous dishes, such as bread, yogurt, baked beans, tomato sauce, and condiments like salad dressing and ketchup.
Most of the time, thick liquids called syrups are produced by dissolving a lot of sugar in water. Some of them are high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, honey, molasses, evaporated cane juice, and many others. Syrups containing sugar are also used to sweeten food.
Not just sugar, people frequently say they don’t salt their food while discussing sodium content. You don’t even need to add salt because manufacturers have already done it for you by including added salt. The Dietary Guidelines also advise a daily salt intake of fewer than 2,300 mg. Look for foods that are low in or reduced in salt.
6. Processed Foods Vs. Healthy Eating
Consumer convenience is the primary objective of processed foods. It makes sense to process some foods in a certain way for practical reasons. Consumers who don’t have to wash, dry, or chop the products can eat fruits and vegetables more conveniently, thanks to minimally processed meals like sliced fruits and vegetables.
Perishable foods can be preserved in cans or frozen and eaten later while still at their best. Foods can benefit from the texture and flavor-enhancing effects of adding oils, sugars, and preservatives. The foods that have undergone the most processing, such as frozen and prepared meals, require little to no preparation and are ready to consume after being heated.
The Michigan State University Extension supports the idea that not all processed foods should be demonized. In a well-balanced diet, each has a proper time and place. Because people are busy, picking up pre-cut, cleaned fruits and vegetables is a better and less processed alternative to fruit snacks or vegetable chips.
Beans and tuna, which ordinarily require a lot of preparation time, can be consumed by people who are short on time by being available in canned form. Keep the “spectrum” when picking processed meals in mind, so you select lightly processed items more frequently than severely processed foods.
Living without processed foods is nearly impossible in the modern world. However, the best method to prevent the bad consequences of processed foods is to avoid them entirely because the downsides vastly outweigh the benefits. Avoiding feeding processed meals to newborns and kids is another approach to lessen these impacts drastically.