What is a Processed Food?
By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RDN
When we are advised to eat less processed food, it may be more difficult than we thought – almost all food is processed to some degree, e.g. milk is processed when it is pasteurized and homogenized.
A general definition states: any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is available for us to eat it. It all began about 2 million years ago when our ancestors discovered fire and began to cook their food. Then they discovered fermenting, drying and salting mainly to preserve foods before refrigeration came about many eons later.
Control of fire gave humans control of their food supply. There are many stories about how cooking came about. It more than likely was accidental – e.g. a hut burned down and cooked some pigs – they tasted it and liked it.
So how do we avoid processed foods? It is nearly impossible due to their ubiquitous presence in the supermarkets and food supply. However, if we group them into two main categories, it makes it somewhat easier.
Processing ranges from minimally processed like frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Ultra processed foods are generally “ready to eat” foods needing minimal or no preparation and foods packaged with a long shelf life not requiring refrigeration. Their list of ingredients are extremely long and contain many unpronounceable additives. I remember when the frozen food cases contained mainly frozen vegetables, fruits, desserts, and the famous “TV” dinners. Now we see multiple aisles of them displaying just about anything you want – breads, microwave quick-fix, breakfast foods, chicken in various forms, complete entrees from many ethnic origins, pizzas just to name a few.
Minimally processed foods differ greatly in safety, calories, nutrition, and cost. Often safety is increased by processing as in pasteurization, canning and freezing. Not all lack nutrition, e.g. frozen vegetables can be more nutritious than fresh because they are picked and frozen at the height of their nutritional value.
So why do we say – avoid processed foods? According to Marion Nestle, Carlos Monteiro, a professor of São Paulo writes in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, the problem is ultra-processed foods. He argues: “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world”
Ultra-processed foods are more energy dense – they generally contain, oils, solid fats, sugars, salt and starches. These ingredients result in a product that has more total fat, saturated or trans fat, sugar and sodium that all, except for sodium, contribute to higher calorie contents.
Many of these ultra-processed foods have less micronutrients and fiber. They are also cheap, relatively speaking, and available everywhere – convenient stores, vending machines, etc. etc. that are available 24 hours a day. They are portable and can be eaten as snacks while working, driving or watching television.
Due to their ingredients, they are highly enjoyable to eat and many are available in supersized versions, advertised to be more economical. They are often the foods we eat mindlessly – not even being aware of their consumption.
The use of additives led to the domination of ultra-processed foods in our diet. They make these foods possible and increase our consumption of nutritionally worthless or even harmful foods. They become more harmful than the additives themselves. The problem is not what is in them – it is what is not in them. For example, most are energy dense, not nutrient dense.
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods tend to be healthier choices than the aforementioned ultra-processed foods.
Researchers reported recently from England that people who eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a 42 percent lower risk of dying – of any cause- during a study lasting seven and 1/2 years. The study involved 65, 226 men and women. A serving was determined as one large fruit or a handful of smaller fruits or vegetables – about 3 ounces.
A study of different diets including low carbohydrate, Palo, Mediterranean, vegan, i.e. those diets containing minimally processed whole foods were associated with health promotion and disease prevention. It is important to know that many foods labeled “organic” can also be ultra-processed.
Bottom Line: The recognition of what exactly is a processed food may help people realize that the advice “avoid processed food” has some basis instead of some vague recommendation. It is also important for people to realize how mindful eating – actually thinking about what you eat daily can help us choose foods more wisely, So the advice – try to avoid processed foods- still holds if you know which kinds to avoid.