What comes into our minds when we say processed food are junk food, ready-to-eat-meals, canned goods, and other foods that are packed with preservatives, additives, and industrial formulations. In reality, processed food need not be complicated. They can be as simple as food that have been washed, cut, or even stored in the freezer. So what does it really mean when we say processed food?
Identifying processed foods
According to an article from Harvard Public Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes processed foods as those that have undergone changes to its natural state. These foods include any raw agricultural commodity that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed, packaged, or have been subjected to other procedures that alter the food from its original state. These foods may also include those with added preservatives, flavors, colorings, nutrients, and other additives or substances approved for use in food products.
Other terms specified by The Institute of Food Technologists for processed food include those that are stored, filtered, fermented, extracted, concentrated, microwaved, and packaged.
Types of processed food
Looking at the very wide scope of processed food, it would not be fair to say that all processed foods are unhealthy. Sometimes, we need to process food to make them cleaner and make them fit for eating. Washing fruits and vegetables or cooking meat, for instance, are needed to make these food suitable for human consumption. To help us know which processed foods are acceptable and which ones are rather unhealthy, let us learn the types of processed foods using the NOVA food classification.
NOVA is a type of food classification that groups foods according to the degree and purpose of food processing they go through. These include physical, biological, and chemical processes done after being separated from nature and before being consumed or used in meal preparation. This means it does not include the culinary preparation the food goes through at home or in the restaurant, such as disposing of non-edible parts, peeling, fractioning, cooking, seasoning, and mixing with other ingredients.
Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Unprocessed food are also called natural food. These natural foods include include the following:
- Edible parts of plants, such as seeds, fruits, leaves, edible stems, and roots
- Edible parts of animals like eggs and milk
Also in this group are minimally processed foods that have undergone very slight processing in order to extend the life of unprocessed food and to facilitate or diversify food preparation. They are not added with salt, sugar, oils, or any other substances.
The preparations that minimally processed foods undergo include the following:
- Removal of inedible/unwanted parts
- Non-alcoholic fermentation
- Pacing in containers
- Vacuum packaging
According to the NOVA food classification, foods that belong to the group 1 include the following:
- Fruits, as well as leafy and root vegetables that are fresh, squeezed, chilled, frozen, or dried
- Grains including brown, parboiled, or white rice; corn kernel or cob; and wheat berry or grain
- Corn, wheat, oats, cassava grits, flour, or flakes
- Potatoes, cassava, and other starchy roots and tubers
- Fresh and dried mushrooms
- Chilled or frozen meat, poultry, fish, and other seafood (whole, steak, fillet, and other cuts)
- Pasteurized or powdered milk
- Fresh or pasteurized fruit and vegetable juices without sugar or other sweeteners and flavors
- Pasta, polenta, and couscous that are made with flour, flakes, or grits with water
- Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Tree and ground nuts and other oil seeds
- Dried or fresh herbs
- Plain yoghurt
- Tea, coffee, and drinking water
- Foods made from two or more items mentioned above (e.g granola made of cereals, dried mixed fruits, and nuts with dried fruits)
Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients
The food classified in this group are from group 1, which are processed by way of pressing, refining, milling, grinding, and spray drying. These items are usually consumed with the group 1 food as seasoning, as part of cooking ingredients,and other culinary preparations. Examples include the following:
- Salt from seawater
- Sugar or molasses from cane or beet
- Starch from corn and other plants
- Honey from combs
- Syrup from maple trees
- Vegetable oils from olives or seeds
- Butter or lard from meat or pork
Other items that may belong to this food group include the following:
- Food products consisting two group 2 items (e.g. salted butter)
- Group 2 items with vitamins and minerals (e.g. iodized salt)
- Vinegar from fermented wine or other alcoholic drinks
- Those with healthier preservatives (e.g. vegetable oils with anti-oxidants, other vinegars)
Group 3. Processed foods
The processed products classified here in group 3 are Group 1 foods that are added with sugar, oil, salt, other group 2 items, or preservatives. These are processed through preservation, non-alcoholic fermentation, and cooking methods. The added ingredients and processing are meant to enhance sensory qualities of food or simply to modify the food. These products usually have two or three ingredients.
Here is a list of processed food under group 3:
- Canned/bottled vegetables
- Canned fish
- Processed meat ( salted, cured, dried, smoked)
- Fruits in syrup
- Freshly-made breads (unpackaged)
Group 4. Ultra-processed food and drink products
The products that belong to this category undergo much processing that cannot be done at home, such as hydrogenation, moulding, extrusion, and pre-processing for frying. These foods are industrially formulated with five or more ingredients. The ingredients in these foods may also include those from group 3, as well as other substances that are not generally used in culinary preparations. These also include substances that imitate the sensory qualities of group 1 foods or disguise the undesirable sensory qualities of the final items.
Examples of these substances are:
- Hydrogenated oil
- Hydrolyzed proteins
- High fructose corn syrup
- Food flavorings, flavorings, and dyes
- Non-sugar sweeteners
- Flavor enhancer
- Anti-caking agents
These foods are ultra-processed in order to make them ready to consume and ready to reheat. They are also meant to serve as more palatable and more attractive alternatives of food and drinks in the group 1 NOVA category.
Ultra-processed food items include the following:
- Chocolates and candies
- Sweet and savory packaged snacks, including chips (junk food)
- Ice cream
- Packaged breads (mass-produced)
- Cookies, biscuits, and pastries
- Cakes and cake mixes
- Spreads and margarines
- Breakfast cereals
- Cereal and energy bars
- Energy drinks
- Milk drinks, fruit drinks,yoghurt drinks, cocoa drinks
- Carbonated drinks
- Whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka
- Instant sauces
- Chicken and other meat extracts
- Infant formulas, follow-on milks, and other baby products
- Slimming and health products
- Ready-to-eat meals
- Instant noodles and powdered/packaged soups and desserts
Many meat products also undergo ultra-processing. Here is a list of processed meat that belong to this category:
- Hot dogs
- Chicken and fish nuggets and sticks
- Corned beef and other canned meat
- Cured bacon
- Beef jerky
Health risks on consuming processed foods
Food is medicine. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and their healthy by-products or any of their combinations, as well as meat in proper proportions, can not only make us healthy, but also prevent and cure us of diseases. However, when we choose to consume heavily processed foods and those made with synthetic ingredients, we make ourselves unhealthy and cause ourselves to contract diseases.
Countless studies have linked the consumption of processed foods with many diseases. Here are some of the health risks associated with processed food intake:
- Cardiovascular diseases caused by the high amounts of saturated fats, sugar, and salt in processed food.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure) caused by high sodium contents of processed foods. Hypertension is one of the leading causes of stroke and other brain diseases. It also causes heart attacks and other heart problems, as well as kidney diseases.
- Worsening of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms caused by nitrates, which are preservatives used in many processed foods.
- Diabetes caused by the high sugar content of processed foods. They are also listed in the ingredients lists as sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and other sweeteners.
- Bowel and stomach cancer caused by the preservatives found in processed foods, such as nitrates. They may also be caused by the high amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in smoked meats, as well as Heterocyclic amines (HCAs). PAHs HCAs are substances that are formed when organic matter, such as meat, is burned and cooked in high temperature.
Other risks associated with frequent consumption of ultra-processed foods include risk of early death as well as risk of contracting other non-communicable diseases like asthma, cerebrovascualr diseases (conditions that affect blood supply to the heart and brain), and more.
Food consumption guide
With all those diseases and health risks mentioned above, it is becoming really clear that processed foods are indeed harmful to our health. How do we know which ones are okay to consume to enjoy the health benefits and which ones to avoid in order to avoid health risks?
Let us take a look at the recommendations on processed food consumption below as shared by the Brazilian Ministry of Health. The Brazilian Food and Nutrition Guide use the NOVA classification to help us easily distinguish which ones are healthier to consume and which ones are not.
NOVA Group 1. Basis of diet
It is recommended that natural or minimally processed foods be the basis of our diet. These foods, especially of plant origin and made by agro-ecological methods, are great sources of nutritious and delicious food systems. These foods also help support socially and environmentally viable food systems
NOVA Group 2. Use in moderation
We are advised to use culinary ingredients in this group classification in small amounts for seasoning, cooking, and other culinary preparations. These ingredients make our food more delicious and diverse. As long as they are used in moderation, are based on natural or minimally processed sources (e.g. foods, oils, fats, sugar), and are nutritionally balanced, they are safe to consume.
NOVA Group 3. Small amounts and limited use
Processed foods in this category must be used in small amounts, preferably as part of culinary preparations or meals that are based on Group 1 NOVA classification. The processing involved in this category alter the nutritional composition of the original food, making them less healthy. Because of this, we must limit its use and find healthier alternatives.
NOVA Group 4. Avoid consumption
Foods in this classification have industrial formulations and undergo much processing making them nutritionally unbalanced. These foods are also usually packed with more sugar, sodium, and other ingredients that are unhealthy when consumed excessively. For these reasons, they have to be avoided. The problem is that these foods are presented and marketed attractively and heavily, thus tending to be consumed more often, displacing healthier alternatives.
Above, we can see that we need to limit processed food and avoid ultra-processed food intake to prevent health risks. The good news is, we can actually substitute these less healthy processed and ultra-processed foods with healthier alternatives.
Below is a chart shared by Healthline showing healthier alternatives to processed and ultra-processed foods that can be prepared at home
Not all processed foods are harmful. Some are simply processed by way of freezing, fractioning, or even packaging. Some are also less healthy going through complex food processing or packed with high amounts of salt, sugar, or synthetic ingredients. What is important is that we know which types of foods are healthier to consume and which ones are not in order to prevent health risks.
When preparing meals,we just need to make it a habit to choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods over ultra-processed foods. Choose the ones that are made with natural ingredients over those made with industrial formulation. Prefer dishes and snacks that are freshly prepared over ready-to eat or ready-to-reheat dishes. Avoid soft drinks or store-bought juices that are sweetened to suit to your liking and made to last longer and instead choose freshly squeezed fruit juices or water.
Along with exercise and enough sleep, proper food intake can make us healthier and help us live longer. As what American author and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, said, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”