Part of looking your best, being healthy, and feeling comfortable in your body comes down to eating a healthy, nutritious diet. We often talk about the best foods to eat — lots of veggies, lean protein, and healthy fats.
But what foods should we avoid? Are all processed foods bad for you?
I’m excited to answer the most frequently asked questions about processed foods, including what counts as processed food, the different types of food processing, and what processed foods should be avoided more than others.
What Are Processed Foods?
The definition of processed foods will change depending on who you’re talking to. Some people think of processed foods as the food you’ll get at fast-food restaurants, while others consider any food that has been changed from its original state as processed.
For example, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines processed food as any food that has been changed from its natural state. This means that any food that has been washed, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, or packaged is considered processed. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom has a similar definition.
Some food, like milk, needs to be processed in order to make it safe to drink or eat.
Some of the most common types of processed foods include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Chips, crackers, and biscuits
- Microwave meals
- Instant noodles
- Soft drinks and instant coffee/tea
- Deli meats, such as bacon or sausage
Types of Food Processing
In 2009, nutritionists developed a system called the NOVA classification. NOVA breaks food down into different categories, depending on how processed they are. Here’s how the NOVA system groups different types of foods:
1. Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
Unprocessed foods are the parts of meat or plants that you can eat safely and naturally as they are. Minimally processed foods are foods that have been changed slightly for the sake of preservation or cleanliness. Techniques like cleaning fruits and vegetables before shipping, removing inedible or unwanted parts, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and vacuum-packaging all qualify in this category.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, many types of meat, milk, nuts, and seeds are typically unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
2. Processed Culinary Ingredients
In this category, foods are processed by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. Foods in this category aren’t things that you typically eat on their own. Instead, they are used as ingredients in cooking or baking.
Flours, whole grain pasta, and oil from nuts and seeds fall into this category.
3. Processed Foods
Processed foods are foods from the past two groups that have extra sugar, fat, or salt added to them. These foods usually have about 2-3 ingredients, and they don’t need to be cooked to be eaten.
Canned fish, canned fruits and vegetables, fresh bread, and certain types of cheese are considered processed foods.
4. Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods are sometimes called highly processed foods. These foods have more than just sugar, salt, or fat added to them. They also have artificial colours, extra flavouring, and preservatives added to them. These foods typically don’t require any preparation, and they are generally low in fiber and nutrients.
Nutritionists tend to think that ultra-processed foods are designed to increase your cravings so that you continue to purchase and eat more.
Sweet drinks, cookies, chips, lunch meats, frozen dinners, and some breakfast cereals are considered ultra-processed foods.
Are Processed Foods Unhealthy?
Most of us eat processed foods from time to time. In fact, many of us will often eat foods that require some level of processing, even if they are low on the NOVA scale. Because of this, it is important to understand if what we are eating is good for us or not. Unfortunately, the answer is not super straightforward.
At times, eating processed food can be safer and healthier for us. For example, pasteurized milk helps keep bacteria at bay! Other times, processing helps food just last longer, which helps us actually eat the food we buy. :)
Certain types of emulsifiers (ingredients which stabilise foods made with oil and water but also affect the texture of some foods like ice cream), for instance, can help foods like peanut butter stick together correctly for a longer period of time. Extending shelf life helps with food waste!
Other types of food are good for most people in moderation. For instance, whole grain pasta or oats can be an excellent part of a healthy diet!
But processing foods also can make certain foods less nutritious. For example, drying fruit makes them lose some of their nutrients and vitamins. That’s clearly not as healthy as eating fresh, raw fruit.
In general, the more salt, sugar, fat (depending on the quantity and type), preservatives, and additives in a food, the less nutritious it is for you. In other words, foods higher up on the NOVA scale, tend to be worse for you. Eating too much of these things can cause:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
Some Unhealthy Foods to Avoid
In my opinion, the following processed foods don’t provide enough nutrients to be worth eating regularly. Of course, remember that it is okay to enjoy your favourite foods in moderation. The focus should be on eating healthy, nutritional food most of the time. :)
Most granola bars are full of sugar! Although these bars are often marketed as healthy foods, I wouldn’t recommend that you eat too many of them often. Many of them have enough sugar to count as a dessert, and they are full of simple carbohydrates and preservatives.
I’ve noticed that, if I eat a granola bar, my blood sugar seems to spike. I’m not satisfied by them, so my hunger continues. If you love granola bars and want a healthier alternative, I recommend trying to make them at home. This way, you can control how much sugar you include in them. :)
Instant ramen can be a quick and tasty meal, but it is full of salt. The amount of sodium in instant ramen can easily raise your blood pressure. In fact, ramen can easily have 14 g of fat and over 1,500 mg of sodium in a package. And that’s without flavoring or additional toppings.
Instant ramen is also mostly simple carbohydrates, which spike your blood sugar and don’t keep you satisfied for very long.
Ketchup and Other Dressings
Be careful about your condiments! Many sauces, dressings, and other condiments are full of sugar and salt. In fact, there are typically about 2 grams of sugar in every packet of ketchup.
You can try to make ketchup at home with tomatoes and vinegar instead. :)
Fruit should be healthy, right? Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, drying fruit strips it of a lot of its nutritional value. Dried fruit isn’t completely awful for you. It still has fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If you are craving something sweet, dried fruit can be a good option. In fact, I often prefer dried fruit over cookies or candy.
Despite this, dried fruit is full of calories and sugar. Be careful about overeating them! I like to treat them as a dessert or a small snack, not something to munch on mindlessly! :)
The Differences Between Ultra-Processed and Processed Foods
As we’ve seen through the NOVA classification system, lots of different types of foods are processed. But ultra-processed foods stand out from the crowd in terms of how processed they are and the ways in which they are processed.
Here are some of the major differences between ultra-processed foods and processed foods:
- Processing typically requires just a couple of steps. However, ultra-processing food requires multiple steps. For example, canned foods require adding salt and assembling the ingredients into a can.
- Most ultra-processed foods have long ingredient lists, as opposed to the 2-3 ingredients in processed foods. Some of the most common ingredients in ultra-processed foods are sugar, salt, saturated fat, artificial colours and flavours, preservatives, and emulsifiers.
- Most of the time, ultra-processed foods contain ingredients that don’t naturally occur in nature.
- Ultra-processed foods often have a completely different, and unnatural, food structure than the food did initially.
- Finally, ultra-processed foods typically don’t even resemble foods that naturally occur in nature. For example, canned peaches resemble fresh peaches, but peach-flavoured soda does not.
The Dangers of Ultra-Processed Foods
Clearly, ultra-processed foods are significantly different from other types of processed foods. They also are far worse for you. People who eat more ultra-processed foods are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.
One study showed that people who eat more ultra-processed foods were likely to eat more food and gain more weight than others.
These are not the only reasons to avoid ultra-processed foods. These foods are also:
- Linked to higher cancer rates.
- Designed to trigger your body’s reward system, making it hard to know when to stop eating.
- Lacking protein.
- Missing fiber, vitamins, and nutrients.
Are There Healthy Processed Foods?
Yes, there are ways to incorporate processed foods into a healthy diet! Processed foods can be so convenient and add some excellent nutritional value into your meals. :)
Here are some of my favourite processed foods:
- Canned beans (I like to pick low-sodium options)
- Frozen brown rice
- Lentil pasta
- Frozen fruits and veggies (these are great for soups and smoothies!)
- Nut and seed butter
- Almond milk
- Whole-grain breads
- Dark chocolate (yum!)
If you’re choosing processed or packaged foods at the grocery store, I suggest checking out the ingredient list. Consider asking these questions:
- Is this food full of ingredients that I struggle to pronounce? Typically, foods with just a couple of ingredients are less processed and often better for you.
- How much sugar is in this?
- Will I feel satisfied after eating this, or is this mostly empty calories?
- How much salt is in this?
- Is this full of saturated fats?
- What else do I have in my shopping cart? Is my cart full of other foods that are high in sugar, salt, fat, or preservatives?
These questions can help you pick out healthier food while you’re at the store.
Processed foods aren’t all bad. Sometimes they help preserve food, make them tastier, or make them more convenient. However, it is important to know what’s in our food so that we can make healthy choices, look great, and feel our best!
Let me know if you have any other questions in the comments!
Love Rachael xx