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What is ultra-processed food

By: Lola Frailey Thursday March 3, 2022 comments Tags: raw food, healthy eating, healthy living

Our food environment is changing - and in the case of our health not for the better. More than ever highly processed foods are readily available and people are eating more of them. In fact ultra-processed foods make up 60% of the calories Americans consume daily. 

What’s wrong with this? Eating a diet of ultra-processed foods increases your intake of sodium, saturated fat, sugar and artificial substances which according to scientific research is now linked to an increased risk of chronic disease.  

You’ve probably heard that it’s in the best interest of your health to reduce the amount of “highly processed” or “ultra-processed” food in your diet. 

But aren’t practically all foods processed in some way these days? The simple answer is yes. This makes it even more confusing for you as a consumer to make healthy food choices and decipher which foods are in fact good and which should be limited or completely avoided. 

Let’s first start with breaking down what counts as “whole” vs “processed” and within “processed” the different categories. 

The NOVA system

One of the most common food-processing classification systems used in scientific literature is the NOVA classification system. The system considers the physical, biological and chemical manufacturing processes that food undergoes and the impacts the byproducts have on our health. 

The NOVA system splits all food into four categories based on how processed it is. The four categories are:

1 Unprocessed and minimally processed foods

Whole foods without any added ingredients count as unprocessed.
Foods like: 

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • herbs and spices
  • milk

To be considered minimally processed foods may be dried, crushed, ground, filtered, roasted, powdered, boiled, fermented, pasteurized, chilled, frozen and even vacuum-packed. These foods must have no extra added ingredients like salt, sugar, oil etc. Minimal processing enables whole foods to be better stored or suited for travel. 

The Noni Fruit Leather is a minimally processed raw food. Made from 100% certified organic whole raw noni fruit that has simply been de-seeded, pureed and dried below 115F for maximum nutritional potency.

Frozen vegetables are also an example of minimal processing. As are canned vegetables and legumes, just as long as they aren’t packaged in brine or additives. 

2 Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients are substances that are derived from group 1 foods or from nature by processing methods such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling or drying. Processed culinary ingredients are rarely consumed on their own but rather used to prepare, cook or season foods in order to create meals and dishes that are more palatable, nourishing and diverse.

Examples include:

  • vegetable oils crushed from seeds, nuts or fruit
  • butter from milk
  • sugar molasses obtained from cane or beet
  • honey extracted from combs
  • syrup from maple trees
  • starches extracted from corn or other plants
  • salt

Processed culinary ingredients can easily be over used so careful attention should be given to using small amounts that create nutritional balance.  

3 Processed food

When ingredients like sugar, salt, or oil are added to whole foods and they are packaged they are no longer “minimal” but rather processed foods. 

Examples of processed foods are:

  • simple whole-grain bread (flour, yeast, salt)
  • simple cheeses to which only salt is added
  • tofu
  • canned beans or vegetables (without additives)
  • salted nuts and seeds
  • fruit in syrup

These foods have been altered for convenience and to extend shelf life of group 1 foods. Processed foods can also be canned, frozen, or fermented. They typically have two to three ingredients and are produced to be used as part of a meal or dish. Some processed foods may also be consumed as a snack.  

While it’s possible to still get the health benefits of a whole food from a processed version it’s also easy to end up eating too much fat, salt and particularly sugar. Therefore, for the best interest of our health it’s important to carefully read nutrition labels and ingredient lists on packaged foods. Did you know sugar hides behind 56 different names? 

4 Ultra-processed food 

Ultra-processed foods are created when manufacturers combine extracted parts from many different foods or synthetic ingredients using industrial techniques such as extrusion, molding and pre-frying.

Ingredients like sugars, oils, fats and salt are combined with ingredients that are rarely used in home cooking.

Examples of such additives include:

  • high fructose corn syrup
  • hydrogenated or interesterified oils
  • protein isolates
  • additives such as ‘natural’ flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners and thickeners
  • agents for anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling, and glazing 

The purpose of combining any of the above additives with sugar, oils, fats and salt is not to make the food more nutritious for you but rather to make the final product tastier and more appealing.  

Ultra-processed foods and beverages include many ready to consume products like:

  • soft drinks, energy drinks, milk drinks and fruit drinks
  • chips
  • chocolate, candy and ice-cream
  • cookies, biscuits, pastries, cakes and cake mixes
  • margarine and other spreads
  • sweetened breakfast cereals
  • energy bars
  • fruit yogurt
  • mass produced packaged breads and buns.

Also included are many prepared ready to heat products like:

  • pies
  • pizza
  • pasta dishes
  • poultry, fish and soy nugget
  • burgers, prepared meat and hot dogs
  • powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles, sauces and desserts

Many infant formulas and meal replacement shakes and powders also fall into the ultra-processed category. 

The bottom line

Ultra-processed foods may be cheap, convenient and even tasty, however they contain little, if any, whole foods. There is increasing scientific research linking ultra-processed foods with obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammation, insulin resistance and cancer. 

For most people it’s unrealistic not to have any “processed foods'', let alone any ultra-processed foods in your diet. The occasional burger, bag of chips or bowl of ice cream is not necessarily the problem. The problem is when your breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks all become “ultra-processed foods”. 

What can you do?

  • Read food labels
    Make it a practice to read food labels to learn exactly what you are eating and select foods with fewer added ingredients. Tips on how to read the nutrition facts label here
  • Investigate your pantry
    Do an investigation in your kitchen pantry, the ingredient labels of some of your favorite packaged foods may surprise you and not in a good way.
  • Learn all the names for sugar
    Don’t let added sugar hide from you, seek it out by learning the 56 names sugar hides behind. Learn all 56 here
  • Eat more whole foods
    Lastly the more you can make a conscientious effort to include more whole raw foods, grains, nuts, herbs and spices in your diet the better off your health will be.

Lola Frailey

About the Author: Lola Frailey