Understanding Processed Foods

Updated: April 23th 2024

A 2020 paper linked high ultra-processed food intake to a higher risk of depressive symptoms in the U.S. This association might be due to factors like the poor nutritional quality, additives, contaminants, and gut microbiome disruption caused by these foods. However, consumers often struggle to understand how processed foods are classified.

The difference is especially important to understand because so much of the modern food supply is processed in some way. It’s estimated that ultra-processed foods make up about 57.7% of total caloric intake in the United States.

In my experience as a dietitian, I’ve seen many health-conscious people restrict their diets due to fear of processed foods. However, not all processed foods are villains. In fact, for several reasons, many processed foods can actually contribute positively to your health.

Keep reading to learn more! 👇🏽

But first, what are processed foods?:🌾

The term ‘processed foods’ is commonly used as an umbrella term for unhealthy foods, but that’s not the case! The USDA defines ‘processed foods’ as any raw agricultural commodity that has been:

  • Cleaned
  • Washed
  • Milled
  • cut/chopped
  • Heated
  • pasteurized 
  • Blanched
  • Cooked
  • Canned
  • Frozen
  • Dried
  • dehydrated 
  • Mixed
  • Packaged
  • preserved using salt, sugar or fats

The definition of processed food is broad: any procedure that alters a food from its natural state falls under this umbrella. This encompasses a wide range of foods, as you might expect! Thinking of processed foods as a spectrum is helpful.

Some foods are closer to their natural state (ie corn flour) while other foods undergo such extensive processing that our ancestors might struggle to recognize them as edible (ie. cheetos).

Telling them apart: ‘ultra-processed’ and other processed foods: 📊

Researchers have investigated the health impacts of processed foods, but haven’t settled on a single, perfect way to identify them. The NOVA classification system steps up as a valuable tool to recognize ultra-processed foods. Developed by a team from the University of São Paulo’s Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, NOVA offers a comprehensive framework to understand the different levels of food processing.

The NOVA classification system categorizes processed foods into four groups: 🔍

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: These are natural, whole foods that have undergone no or minimal processing, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: These are substances derived from unprocessed foods, such as oils, butter, sugar, salt, and spices, that are used in cooking and food preparation.
  3. Processed foods: These include foods that have been modified through cooking, preservation, or other methods, often to improve their taste, texture, or shelf life. Examples include canned fruits and vegetables, freshly made bread, and homemade sauces.
  4. Ultra-processed foods: This category comprises heavily processed foods that typically contain multiple ingredients and additives. They often have little resemblance to their original sources. Examples include packaged snacks, ready-to-eat meals, sugary beverages, and industrially produced desserts.

A clear method for differentiating processed foods empowers you to make a wider range of nutritious choices in your diet. This knowledge helps you identify foods that may worsen symptoms of depression and have other negative impacts on mental health and well-being.

Processed foods can be healthy? 🍞

Short answer, yes!

As this 2019 paper quotes: “Almost all foods are processed to some extent, if only by preservation, it is therefore unhelpful to criticize foods as being ‘processed’.”

It’s true there are various processed foods in the food supply, however the processing of foods is necessary and important for health for a few reasons:

Fortification and Enrichment:

Food processors often fortify or enrich certain processed foods to boost their nutritional value by adding essential nutrients. This practice is especially common with cereals, bread, and dairy products. Take folic acid added to bread or iodine added to salt – these additions have helped fight nutrient deficiencies and improve public health on a large scale. By consuming fortified processed foods, you can easily bridge any gaps in your diet and ensure you’re getting vital nutrients.

Preservation and Convenience:

Processing offers a major advantage: it extends the shelf life of certain foods. Techniques like canning, freezing, or drying help us preserve perishable foods for longer, without needing harmful additives. This means you can enjoy fruits and vegetables even out of season, promoting a varied and balanced diet all year round. Plus, busy schedules are no excuse for healthy eating! Ready-to-eat meals and pre-cut produce offer convenient options to incorporate healthy choices into your daily routine.

Safety and Quality Control:

Modern food processing techniques go the extra mile to keep us safe and ensure food quality. Processes like pasteurization zap harmful bacteria in dairy and juice products, while canning seals food in sterile environments. These methods are all about reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses and boosting the overall safety of what ends up on our plates.

Nutritional Enhancements:

Processing can even boost the nutritional value of some foods! Take tomatoes and pumpkins for example. Processing methods used for tomato paste and canned pumpkin actually concentrate beneficial compounds like antioxidants. These concentrated versions pack an extra punch of health benefits when you include them in recipes or enjoy them as part of a balanced diet.

It’s true, most foods see some processing, but simply bashing all processed foods misses the mark.

Diets limited solely to unprocessed options would struggle with variety and stability. Look around the world – traditional cuisines all weave together unprocessed and minimally processed foods with ingredients and dishes that involve processing. Processed foods are undeniably a significant part of the modern diet.

Types of Processed Foods to avoid: 🍬

Not all processed foods are bad news, but ultra-processed ones are a different story. A 2020 paper found zero health benefits linked to ultra-processed foods, so it’s best to avoid them.

The same 2020 paper referenced the following findings:

  • A study in France found that individuals with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods had a 31% increased risk of developing depression compared to those with lower consumption
  • A study in Spain showed a 33% higher risk of depression in participants with higher intake of ultra-processed foods.

Want to spot heavily processed foods lurking on shelves? Arm yourself with knowledge from resources like the NOVA classification and OpenFoodFacts. These days, it’s a valuable skill! Supermarkets are full of these sneaky ultra-processed foods, often disguised as healthy choices.

Remember, some processing is okay, even helpful. But the key is to focus on the nutritional quality of what you eat. By prioritizing whole and minimally processed options, you’ll be supporting your mental well-being and overall health with a wider range of nutrient powerhouses!

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