Your Guide To Processed Fods

Your Guide To Processed Foods

It is pretty easy to get confused when contemplating processed foods.  We are becoming increasingly aware that they are bad for us, but which ones are really bad, and which ones are sort of OK?  Are they going to take pizza away from us?  Is a granola bar really ultra-processed?   

For a long time, it was difficult to classify foods by how much they were processed.  In 2010 or so, a research group came up with a good way to do it (It’s called NOVA).

Here is what they said:

There are four categories of processed foods.

Minimally processed foods

These are foods that have undergone some sort of transformation without adding any salt, sugar, fats, or other food substances to them.  This is good!  As we hear all the time, added salt, sugar, and fats can make us want to eat more of them even if we are already full.  Too much salt, sugar and fats can lead to chronic diseases for us. 

Foods in this group may have been ground up, crushed, dried, boiled, pasteurized, frozen, placed in a container, or had some unwanted parts removed.  That would include things like chicken breasts in a package or nuts that have been shelled. 

We can feel good about consuming these foods. 

Processed culinary ingredients

These are the things that we often use to season our food, or help us cook it.  They have been obtained from nature but changed a bit so we can use them.  In this case, salt, sugar, and fat are included.  These items have been transformed into ingredients by pressing (olive oil), grinding (spices), refining (sugar), extracting (other fats or oils), or mining (salt). 

Most of these items are ok for our health, except for certain fats like lard, coconut oil, or palm oil.  And, of course, too much salt, sugar, or fat isn’t a good thing. 

Processed foods

These are products made by adding salt, sugar, or items in the culinary ingredients group.  In addition, some action has been taken on them like canning, bottling, or fermentation.  This is all about making the foods tastier and able to last longer on the shelf.  This would include things like canned tomatoes, some soups, tinned tuna preserved in oil, and simple cheeses that are not processed cheese products. 

Included here would also be some breads.  Grains can be a tricky area because some grains that are minimally processed are good for us, but they can be combined with refined grains like white flour to make some types of breads (like some rye breads).   

Ultra-processed foods

Here the term “foods” is used loosely.  These “foods” are actually more like formulations that have resulted from a series of processes.  These processes including things like extrusion, hydrogenation, or pre-frying.  Often things are added like colors, flavors, emulsifiers, varieties of sugars, or modified oils.  Proteins can be hydrolyzed, turned into an isolate or are from pureeing or grinding up animal carcasses (hot dogs).

To add insult to injury, there are things called “cosmetic additives” which are designed to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable.  Some of these are actually there to cover up the bad taste of other artificial ingredients. 

Here is a short list of items that have been ultra-processed:

  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Packaged snacks (sweet or salty)
  • Chocolate bars with multiple ingredients
  • Candy
  • Some ice creams
  • Mass-produced breads and buns
  • Margarines and other spreads or dips
  • Mass-produced cookies, pastries, cakes
  • Many boxed cereals
  • Sausages, hot dogs
  • Powdered and packaged instant soup
  • Processed cheese food

Foods in the grey zone

Some foods can be processed or ultra-processed.  Back to our examples at the beginning.  Pizza.  You may be able to find a pizza (or make it yourself), that has a crust made of 5-6 processed natural or processed ingredients. 

If you add to that a topping of natural cheese, tomato sauce, herbs, mushrooms, onions, olives, and maybe a bit of arugula, you are still in the processed area, not ultra-processed.  The problem comes when the pizza is mass produced, has added sausage, ham, or pepperoni, and does things like have gooey processed cheese tucked into the crust.  That is why pizza frequently appears on the ultra-processed list.

Granola bars are another item that is frequently vilified as being just a glorified candy bar.  Many of them are.  They are manufactured to be very palatable so that people will seek them out thinking they are “natural” or a “healthy snack.” (in spite of the M & M’s that can appear in them).  Many of these items have added sugars of the ultra-processed variety, or other chemical additives. On the other hand, some snack bars have very few ingredients and their creators go out of their way to keep them only slightly processed. 

Other grey zone foods:  ice cream, breads, canned soups, salad dressing, some crackers.  Taking crackers as an example, some crackers may have simple ingredients, but are quite salty.  Are they ultra-processed?  No.  But, they may put you over the recommended daily amount of salt (the FDA says 2300 mg) if you are not careful. 

Bottom Line

This is by no means a complete guide.  That would take too long!  But, here’s the thing:  You don’t have to know all the chemistry (like how they make a protein isolate), but it is useful to be aware of where you are most likely to find “foods” that are truly bad for you, and then try to avoid them.  Look on the label, check it out for chemicals, and move on to something else if at all possible. 

On the plus side, some processing is not all bad.  A simple item like a pretzel with reasonable salt on it is not going to harm you unless you have certain chronic medical conditions (or eat too many of them). Ditto for some cereals.  Plain old corn flakes or oatmeal can be an easy breakfast that is not bad for you.  Fruit Loops?  Not so much. 

Unfortunately, our current food environment is a complex one.  It requires awareness and diligence, but having the four categories spelled out is a good start.


© 2024 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: GrumpyBeere | Pixabay

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