What even ARE processed foods?
Updated: Apr 27
We now know food exists on a spectrum, many spectrums actually, one of them being the level of processing that a food has gone through. But is "processed food" just a trendy term? Is it an arbitrary label? What about "ultra-processed food"? If you begin working with a naturopathic doctor, this topic might be discussed. After reading this blog, you’ll have the basics of everything you need to know! Let’s dive into it.
The terms “processed food” and even “ultra-processed food” are NOT arbitrary terms, they have definitions and criteria. The four categories of food processing are defined by the NOVA food classification system. The NOVA classification system was developed by Professor Carlos Monteiro from the University of Sao Paulo in 2013.
Side note: NOVA looks like an acronym, but really it’s just the name–NOVA.
Category 1: Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
This category spans completely unprocessed foods (foods obtained directly from plants, fungi, or animals in nature and do not undergo ANY additional processing) to minimally processed foods (foods that have been taken from nature and undergo some form of processing that REMOVES something from the food, but does not add anything to the food). Minimal processing includes cleaning, removal of inedible or unwanted parts, grinding, drying, fermentation, pasteurization, cooling, freezing, etc. Adding something like oil, fat, sugar, salt, or anything else immediately bumps it into another category.
By this point, you’re likely recognizing that even the foods we think of as being “unprocessed” or “natural” go through minimal processing for us to consume them. Those strawberries you picked from your own garden… did you wash them? Did you cut off the stems? Congratulations, you’re a food *minimal* processing factory!
Category 2: Processed Culinary Ingredients (oils, fats, salt, and sugar)
These are products that can come from nature initially but went through pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining before they reached their final form. These are ingredients to then be combined with other food items.
Category 3: Processed Foods
This category involves addition. Processed foods are those that are a) manufactured by industry by adding b) items from category 2, to c) items from category 1. Processed foods have two or three ingredients by definition, and those ingredients must include items from categories 1 and 2. For example, canned vegetables that include salt or vinegar are processed foods, while a bag of frozen vegetable medley would just be a minimally processed food.
Category 4: Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods take it a step beyond. These are foods that are industrial formulations, not just industry-produced. These foods are made completely, or in large part, from items in category 2 or synthesized in labs from food substrates or other organic sources. Key ingredients in ultra-processed foods include flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives that are used to make the product hyper-palatable (meaning the food item has intense pleasurable taste or texture–sweet, sour, crunchy, crispy, etc. which makes you reach for more… “you can’t stop at just one”). Another key aspect to be on the lookout for is if something was molded or shaped… such as chicken nuggets, hot dogs, breakfast bars, buns, candies, etc. Category 1 foods/ingredients are a small proportion or entirely ABESENT from ultra-processed foods.
Why should we care?
Overall, it’s always good to be aware of what we’re putting in our bodies. Are we consuming something for nourishment? Comfort? Taste? To mitigate disease risk? To avoid sensitivity or allergic symptoms? For some folks, avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods might be a part of a lifestyle change for better health. Certain conditions are worsened when consuming food additives or dyes. Some have a range of symptoms if they consume gluten–and not just intentional glutenous products because processed or ultra-processed foods produced by industry might have cross-contamination.
Additionally, processing and ultra-processing, sometimes even just minimal processing, can decrease the nutrient and mineral content of the unprocessed/natural food ingredients in the product. So even if you’re reading food labels on what you’re buying to avoid certain additives, the actual food ingredients in the item may not contain the nutrients and minerals you’re hoping for.
Another factor of processed and ultra-processed foods is hyper-palatability. Industrialization of food has made it so that items on the market might not actually contain food, instead, they’re just shaped ingredients that are edible and keep you coming back for more. The hyper-palatability of ultra-processed foods can start to influence what your body craves. This makes behaviors like intuitive eating a bit more difficult.
Put your new processed food knowledge to the test:
But what about...?
Not everything fits perfectly and easily into these categories. The poll exercise may have made you think of some examples, like: "Well what about a protein bar that I make myself? Or a bean salad I make myself?" It depends! The criteria of category 3, processed foods, is that they are made by industry and combine unprocessed or minimally processed foods from nature with processed culinary ingredients (oil, salt, sugar, etc.). If you make a protein bar at home using homemade almond butter, oats, nuts, and dried fruit with no added sugar, shape them into logs, and freeze or dehydrate them, one could argue that this is a minimally processed food. If you make a protein bar at home using pea protein and tapioca powders that were made by industry, this might still be more of a processed or even ultra-processed food.
A homemade bean salad with chickpeas, red kidney beans, green beans, onions, oil, vinegar, and salt, hits two of the criteria of processed foods--there are items from categories 1 and 2. While it's not "made by industry," the oil and vinegar are made by industry and ingredients you're likely not making from scratch. The zones are grey and lines blurred with situations like these, BUT, your involvement in your own food production still achieves the overall goal of being aware of what you're putting in your body. You can adjust ingredients such as decreasing sugar & oil content and increasing the real food components.
Written by Dr. Olivia Froehlich, ND