It goes without saying that real food is always the healthiest choice when it comes to nutrition, but not all processed food is unhealthy. In fact, many processed foods are very healthy options and can save you a lot of time and money in the kitchen. So, let’s break down what is processed food, what to look for, and what to limit.
Definition of Processed Food
Processed foods are defined as any raw agricultural commodities that have been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed, packaged, or undergone any other procedures that alter the food from its natural state (1, 2). This may include the addition of colors, flavors, preservatives, nutrients, sugars, and salt, as well as other substances approved for use in food.
Since the definition of processed food is so broad, practically all food is considered processed in some way, as everything from bagged spinach to frozen pizza is considered “processed”. For this reason, researchers have developed a food classification system, known as NOVA, which classifies foods into four levels of processing (3):
Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
Unprocessed foods are the edible parts of plants or animals after separation from nature. Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by methods that include the removal of inedible or unwanted parts and also processes that include drying, crushing, grinding, powdering, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, chilling, freezing, placing in containers, and vacuum packaging. Examples of unprocessed or minimally processed foods include:
Group 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients
Processed culinary ingredients are those obtained directly from unprocessed or minimally processed foods, or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying. In isolation, processed culinary ingredients are unbalanced, being depleted in some or most nutrients, and these ingredients are rarely if ever consumed by themselves. Examples of processed culinary ingredients include:
- Maple syrup
Group 3: Processed Foods
Processed foods are made by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other processed culinary ingredients to unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients, are recognizable as modified versions of unprocessed foods, and are generally produced to be consumed as part of meals or dishes and also may be consumed by themselves as snacks. Processes include preservation or cooking methods and with breads and cheeses, non-alcoholic fermentation. Examples of processed foods include:
- Canned vegetables
- Canned beans
- Fruit preserved in syrup
- Tinned fish in oil
- Smoked fish
- Freshly baked bread
Group 4: Ultra-processed food and drink products.
Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients that are typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes. Also referred to as highly processed foods, these are foods that go beyond the simple addition of culinary ingredients and are typically made by fractioning whole foods into substances including sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches, and fiber before being submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications and reassembled to create unmodified and modified food substances with little if any whole food. Colors, flavors, emulsifiers, and other additives are frequently added to make the final product more palatable. Examples of ultra-processed foods include:
- Soft drinks
- Mass-produced packaged bread and buns
- Mass-produced packaged cookies and pastries
- Cakes and cake mixes
- Margarine and other spreads
- Sweetened breakfast cereals
- Cereal bars
- Potato chips
- Fruit yogurt
- Fruit drinks
- Chicken and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’
- Energy drinks
- Hot dogs
The Spectrum of Food Processing
The processing of food occurs on a spectrum as virtually any unprocessed food can be turned into a form of ultra-processed food through a series of industrial techniques. It is the number of added culinary ingredients, added substances, processes, and techniques used to create the food that determines its level of processing.
Consider the example of corn, the further along the processing spectrum you move, the more ingredients are added, and the more processes are required to create the end product. Fresh corn is considered unprocessed food, frozen corn is considered minimally processed, corn flour is considered minimally processed, cheesy corn chips are considered processed food, and high fructose corn syrup is considered ultra-processed food.
Is all processed food unhealthy?
It’s important to understand that not all processed foods are unhealthy. Minimally processed and moderately processed foods are often only slightly altered for the main purpose of preservation, which does not substantially change the nutrient content of the food and can be a great asset to a healthy diet. Opting for processed foods such as pre-cut and washed vegetables, frozen fruit, canned beans, marinated meat, smoked fish, or pre-made hummus is a great way to cut down on time in the kitchen and can help make building healthy and balanced meals much easier.
Examples of healthy processed foods include:
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
- Frozen meat and fish
- Canned meat and fish
- Smoked meat and fish
- Canned beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Precut vegetables and bagged salads
- Pasta and noodles
- Nut and seed butter
- Stocks and broths
- Jarred salsa
- Jarred pasta sauce
- Jarred pesto
- Jarred soup
- Cottage cheese
In fact, even certain brands of prepared meals and ready meals, such as soups and stir-fries, are made with whole foods and contain little to no additives making them healthy processed foods.
Benefits of Minimally Processed Foods
While unprocessed foods will always be considered the healthiest option, there are many benefits to incorporating minimally and moderately processed foods into your diet.
More nutrient dense.
Minimally processed foods are more nutrient dense compared to ultra-processed foods, which are often referred to as empty-calorie foods.
Due to their higher density of micronutrients and macronutrients, namely protein and fiber, minimally processed foods have a greater impact on satiety levels and feelings of fullness compared to processed foods (4, 5).
Using minimally processed foods, such as canned beans, jarred pasta sauce, and frozen stir-fry vegetable blends can help to reduce prep time, cooking time, and clean up.
Increased dietary adherence.
Minimally processed foods are highly convenient and incorporating healthy prepared foods into your diet can help to increase dietary adherence.
Cons of Ultra-Processed Foods
Although ultra-processed foods are commonly consumed in the standard North American diet, there are many drawbacks to them.
Ultra-processed foods, such as soda, candy, chips, and cakes, generally contain fewer nutrients per calorie compared to minimally processed foods.
The specific combinations of fat, sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates in ultra-processed foods make them artificially rewarding and harder to stop consuming (6).
Ultra-processed foods typically contain more artificial flavors, artificial colors, and unnecessary food additives.
The increased content of fat and sugar in ultra-processed foods tends to make them high in calories, which can lead to over-consumption of calories and, in the long run, potentially cause obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health concerns.
Eggs have undergone little to no processing and are, therefore, considered unprocessed food.
Fish, seafood, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and other types of fresh and frozen meat are considered unprocessed meats.
Pasta is considered a moderately processed food as it has been prepared and packaged prior to consumption and sometimes contains the addition of culinary ingredients, often in the form of salt, and added nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals.
All forms of oats – steel cut, rolled, quick-cooking, and instant oats – are considered forms of minimally processed food, as they have undergone some processing but contain no added ingredients.
Natural peanut butter – made only of peanuts – is considered a minimally processed food, while peanut butter with added oil, salt, or sugar is considered processed food.
It is important to understand that not all processed food is junk food, however, all junk food is processed. The term “junk food” is generally used to describe ultra-processed food.
How to Reduce Consumption of Processed Foods
Here are some tips to help reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods:
- Cook your meals. Prepare your own meals with unprocessed foods as much as possible and reach for fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
- Read labels. When reaching for packaged foods, read food labels, specifically the ingredient list and nutrition facts label, and look for products made primarily of whole food with limited added sugar, sodium, and additives.
- Use minimally processed foods. Incorporate minimally processed foods, such as canned beans, jarred tomato sauce, hummus, and bagged salads, for convenience and to increase dietary adherence.
- Limit, don’t omit ultra-processed foods. Remember, there is room for indulgence in a healthy diet and you don’t need to eat “perfectly” to eat well. Enjoy ultra-processed foods from time-to-time, while prioritizing whole foods most of the time.
The Bottom Line
The term processed food refers to any food that has been altered from its natural state and the processing of food occurs on a spectrum from unprocessed to ultra-processed. Ultra-processed foods contain little to no nutritional value and are best limited in the diet, however, they can still be enjoyed in moderation. It is best to consume a diet of primarily unprocessed and minimally processed foods, use moderately processed foods for ease and convenience, and enjoy ultra-processed foods occasionally.