Processed Food: What It Is, and Its Role in Our Food System

6 Things to keep in mind when it comes to buying or eating it.

We may hear “Don’t eat processed food” a lot these days, but in reality, that’s very hard, if not impossible to do. In fact, in many cases, it wouldn’t even be that healthy. That’s because there’s a lot of confusion over what processed food actually is. In this post, you’re going to get the answer to that question as well as 6 things to keep in mind when it comes to buying or eating it. 

Photos of pizza and soda and fresh vegetables and fruit as examples of processed food.
Pizza and soda photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

What is processed food?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, processed food is food that has undergone any changes to its natural state1. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health clarifies that means any washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. It also includes adding salt, sugar, fat or other additives for preservation or for taste2

That means that even if we start out with fresh fruit or vegetables from the farmers’ market, the minute we wash, cut or chop them, we are processing them. This is food preparation at its most basic in one of its healthiest forms, but it’s processing, nonetheless.

In fact, the first food processing took place about two million years ago when cooking or heating over fire was discovered3. Later in prehistoric times, humans learned how to transform, preserve and store food safely through fermenting, drying and preserving with salt3. Since this is what allowed communities to form and survive, it seems that most of us could easily appreciate the concept and practice of food processing. 

In that case, what’s the fuss all about? The confusion comes over the different ways and degrees to which food is processed. 

Types of processed food

The NOVA classification system, which is recognized by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, breaks food processing down into four categories4. The following descriptions of each are taken from a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Unprocessed and minimally processed food4

Unprocessed or natural food is the edible part of plants (such as fruit, leaves, stems, seeds, roots) or from animals (such as muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature. 

Minimally processed food is natural food that is altered. This can be through the removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, powdering, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum packaging. The difference between unprocessed and minimally processed is not considered to be significant, and for both, the nutritional content of the food has not been substantially changed from its natural state.

Processed culinary ingredients4

Processed culinary ingredients are usually derived from unprocessed and minimally processed foods or else from nature through pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying. These can include oils, butter, sugar and salt. Some methods used to make processed culinary ingredients are originally ancient, but now they’re usually produced through industrial methods. These ingredients are rarely consumed by themselves.

Processed food4

Processed food is made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other processed culinary ingredients to unprocessed and minimally processed food. This includes canned or bottled vegetables or legumes preserved in brine; whole fruit preserved in syrup; tinned fish preserved in oil; some types of processed animal foods such as ham, bacon, pastrami, and smoked fish; most freshly baked breads; and simple cheeses. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients and are recognizable as modified versions of unprocessed and minimally processed food. 

It’s important to note that even the dish that results from cooking at home using multiple natural food and culinary ingredients is a processed food. 

Ultra-processed food4

Ultra-processed food is made from ingredients that are usually created by a series of industrial techniques and processes. Some common ultra-processed products are carbonated soft drinks; sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks; candies; mass-produced packaged breads and buns, cookies, pastries, cakes and cake mixes; margarine and other spreads; sweetened breakfast ‘cereals’ and fruit yogurt and “energy” drinks; pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks”; sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles and desserts; and baby formula.

The case for and against ultra-processed food

Breaking down these four categories makes it easy to see that when people say, “Don’t eat processed food,” what they really usually mean is “Don’t eat ultra-processed food.”  This is the category where we can get into the most trouble with our health. That’s because highly processed foods often contain more saturated fat, sugar and sodium than less-processed foods2.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that the systems and ingredients “used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods make them highly convenient (ready-to-consume, almost imperishable) and highly attractive (hyper- palatable) for consumers, but they also make ultra-processed foods typically nutritionally unbalanced and liable to be over-consumed.” That’s not good because of their high content of ingredients that aren’t good for us. The more we eat of them, the less we’re eating of unprocessed, minimally processed and healthy processed food. 

Fortification with vitamins and minerals

While fortifying ultra-processed foods can be seen as a benefit, especially when access to nutritious food is limited, it’s important to understand why they need to be fortified in the first place. In many cases, the only reason that adding vitamins and minerals is needed is because the food wasn’t made from “real” ingredients in the first place or because they were stripped during processing. All that said though, if access to nutritious food is limited, fortified foods are definitely beneficial. 

Things to keep in mind

Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to thinking about the role processed food plays in your life or the life of your family. 

  • Even when we’re talking about home-cooked meals made with multiple ingredients, we have to be careful when it comes to the processed culinary ingredients we use. Using too much sugar, salt and refined oils in our kitchen can be just as unhealthy as getting it from ultra-processed food. 
  • When cooking at home, look for recipes that contain primarily unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients.
  • When it comes to buying meat, especially deli meat, hot dogs, sausage, etc. look for a very simple and short ingredient list. The primary ingredient should be the meat itself with only a few other ingredients needed for preservation. It should not contain a lot of fillers or ingredients that you can’t pronounce. 
  • Don’t buy products that have a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce or don’t know what they are. You should know what every ingredient is that you’re putting into your body.
  • Shop the outside aisles of the grocery store as much as possible. That’s where the freshest and least processed items are found. Items on the inside aisles have the longest shelf life, which means they are more highly processed. The exception to this is what are considered staples such as brown rice, oats, legumes, and other foods that contain beneficial nutrients1
  • The way I think about it is that if I’m buying packaged food from the store, I look for products that contain 5 or fewer ingredients. If it has more, I have to recognize every ingredient listed.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that most of the food we eat is processed in some way. The degree to which it is and the amounts that we eat of more highly processed foods are the keys. While there are some health benefits to ultra-processed food, the general rule of thumb is always going to be to eat as much unprocessed and minimally processed food as possible. 

Sources

  1. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
  2. Poti, Jennifer M et al. The American journal of clinical nutrition. vol. 101,6 (2015): 1251-62. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.100925 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441809/#b1
  3. Floros, John D et al. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. August 2010. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00127.x
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf

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