Processed foodstuffs are typically thought come be inferior to unprocessed foods. Lock may carry to mind a packaged food article containing many ingredients, maybe even artificial colors, flavors, or various other chemical additives. Frequently referred to together convenience or pre-prepared foods, processed foodstuffs are suggested to be a contributor come the weight problems epidemic and also rising ubiquity of chronic illness like heart disease and diabetes. However, the meaning of a processed food varies widely depending on the source:

The U.S. Room of agriculture (USDA) defines a processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state—that is, any raw agricultural commodity based on washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other actions that change the food from its herbal state. The food may encompass the addition of various other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and also other food additive or substances authorized for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and also fats.The institute of Food engineers includes additional processing terms like storing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, concentrating, microwaving, and packaging. <1>

According to these standards, basically all foodstuffs sold in the supermarket would be classified as “processed” to part degree. Since food begins to deteriorate and lose nutrient as soon as it is harvested, also the to apologize in the create aisle undergo four or much more processing steps prior to being marketed to the consumer. It is why in practice, it’s valuable to differentiate in between the various levels of food processing.

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Types of food processing

A renowned system come classify processed foods was introduced in 2009, called the NOVA classification. It lists 4 categories detailing the degree to i beg your pardon a food is processed: <2,3>


Unprocessed foods encompass the organic edible food parts of plants and also animals. Minimally processed foods items have to be slightly transformed for the main purpose that preservation however which does not substantially change the nutritional content of the food. Examples incorporate cleaning and also removing inedible or undesirable parts, grinding, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and also vacuum-packaging. This allows the food to it is in stored because that a better amount that time and also remain safe to eat. Many fresh fruits, vegetables, totality grains, nuts, meats, and also milk fall into this category.

Food ingredients obtained from a minimally handle food by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. Lock are frequently not consumed on your own however used come prepare minimally handle foods. Examples encompass oils indigenous plants, seeds, and nuts, or flour and pastas created from entirety grains.

Foods from one of two people of the 2 previous groups that have added salt, sugar, or fats. Some canned fruits and also vegetables, part cheeses, freshly made bread, and canned fish room examples. These foods items usually room made indigenous at the very least 2-3 ingredients and also can be readily consumed without additional preparation.

Also commonly referred to as “highly handle foods,” these are foodstuffs from the prior team that go past the incorporation of salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colors and also flavors and also preservatives the promote shelf stability, maintain texture, and also increase palatability. Numerous processing measures using lot of ingredients make up the ultra-processed food. It is speculated that these foodstuffs are designed to specifically increase cravings therefore that world will overeat them and purchase more. They are typically ready-to-eat v minimal added preparation. No all however some that these foods tend to be low in fiber and also nutrients. Instances are sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, and breakfast cereals, part frozen dinners, and luncheon meats. These foods items may partly if not completely replace minimally processed foodstuffs in part people’s diets. One study using data from the U.S. Nationwide Health and also Nutrition check Survey found that ultra-processed foods items comprised around 60% of complete calories in the U.S. Diet. <4> one association has actually been argued between the increasing sales that ultra-processed foods and the increase in obesity. <3>

The NOVA mechanism is well-known by the people Health Organization, Food and agriculture Organization, and the Pan American health Organization, however not currently in the U.S. Through the Food and Drug administration or USDA. NOVA has been criticized because that being too basic in its classification of particular foods, resulting in confusion. For example, yogurt may autumn into much more than one category: plain yogurt is minimally processed, yet fruited yogurt with included sweeteners might be labeled one of two people processed or ultra-processed depending on how lot sweetener and other chemical additives space incorporated. NOVA likewise does not provide comprehensive lists of specific foods in every category, therefore the customer is left to guess whereby each might fall.

Is handle food unhealthy?

There’s no doubt the at the very least some processed foods items are uncovered in many people’s kitchens. They deserve to be time-savers once preparing meals, and also some processed and also fortified foods carry out important nutrients that might not otherwise be acquired in a busy family or one that has actually a restricted food budget. Indigenous a nutritional standpoint, processed and even ultra-processed foodstuffs can provide crucial nutrients. Part nutrients prefer protein are naturally retained throughout processing, and also others choose B vitamins and also iron may be included back if they room lost throughout processing. Fruits and vegetables the are easily frozen after ~ harvesting have the right to retain the majority of vitamin C.

Throughout history, foodstuffs fortified with details nutrients have prevented deficiencies and their related health troubles in certain populations. Examples include infant cereals fortified with iron and also B vitamin to protect against anemia, milk strengthened with vitamin D to avoid rickets, wheat flour fortified with folic acid to stop birth defects, and iodine included to salt to protect against goiter.

Processing by details methods favor pasteurization, cooking, and also drying can damage or inhibit the development of harmful bacteria. Additive such as emulsifiers maintain the structure of foods, such as staying clear of peanut butter indigenous separating right into solid and liquid parts. Other functions of processing encompass delaying the spoilage of food; preserving preferable sensory attributes of food (flavor, texture, aroma, appearance); and also increasing convenience in prepare a complete meal.

But food processing also has drawbacks. Depending on the degree of processing, countless nutrients have the right to be damaged or removed. Peeling external layers the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains might remove plant nutrient (phytochemicals) and also fiber. Heating or drying foods items can destroy certain vitamins and also minerals. Return food manufacturers can include back several of the nutrients lost, the is impossible to recreate the food in its initial form.

If you space deciding even if it is or not to encompass a highly processed food in your diet, it might be advantageous to evaluate its nutritional content and long-term impact on health. An ultra-processed food that consists of an unevenly high proportion of calories to nutrients might be taken into consideration unhealthy. For example, research study supports an association in between a high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and also an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and also heart disease. Yet some processed foods that contain valuable nutrients, such as olive oil or rolling oats, have been attached with lower rates of these chronic diseases.


Being conscious of particular ingredients in a food is a good general exercise for everyone however may be especially useful for those with food allergy or intolerances, diabetes, or cradle diseases. In plenty of cases, the much longer the ingredient list, the an ext highly processed a food is. However, an ingredient the is no recognizable or has a long chemical surname is no necessarily unhealthful. When scanning the ingredients listing on a food package, think about the following:The ingredients are provided in bespeak of quantity by weight. This way that the food ingredient the weighs the most will be provided first, and also the ingredient that weighs the least is noted last. <5>Some ingredients choose sugar and also salt might be listed by other names. Because that example, different terms because that sugar space corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, or turbinado sugar. Other terms because that sodium incorporate monosodium glutamate or disodium phosphate.If the food is extremely processed, it may contain numerous food additives such as synthetic colors, flavors, or preservatives. Your ingredient names might be much less familiar. Some preservatives promote security of the food by staying clear of growth the mold and bacteria. Others help prevent spoilage or “off” spices from developing. Examples that you might see on the label include:Preservatives—ascorbic acid, salt benzoate, potassium sorbate, tocopherolsEmulsifiers that stop separation that liquids and solids—soy lecithin, monoglyceridesThickeners to add texture—xanthan gum, pectin, carrageenan, guar gumColors—artificial FD&C Yellow No. 6 or organic beta-carotene to include yellow huesFortified foods contain vitamins and minerals that are included after processing. One of two people these nutrients were lost during processing, or lock were included because they are lacking in the typical diet. Examples include B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, niacinamide, folate or folic acid), beta carotene, iron (ferrous sulfate), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Vitamin D, or amino mountain to rise protein content (L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, L-methionine).

Ingredients supplied widely in the manufacturing of highly/ultra-processed foods such as saturated fats, included sugar, and sodium have become markers of bad diet quality due to their effect on love disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. <6,7> that is approximated that ultra-processed foodstuffs contribute around 90% of the complete calories obtained from added sugars. <4> 

A watch at several of the research evaluating different species of processed foods and their influence on healthIn 2015, the world Health organization categorized handle meats as cancer-causing to humans. They characterized “processed meat” as meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or various other processes to improve flavor or improve preservation. The statement to be made ~ 22 researchers from the International agency for research study on Cancer Working group evaluated an ext than 800 studies on the topic. The evidence on processed meat was strongest for colorectal cancer, adhered to by stomach cancer. <8>An analysis of the Nurses’ health and wellness Study and also Health professionals Follow-up Study found that a greater intake the ultra-processed foodstuffs like handle meats and potato chips was linked with weight gain over 4 years. <9> various other studies imply that the much more that ultra-processed foodstuffs are eaten, the better the danger of a diet lacking in necessary nutrients. An testimonial of the dietary intakes of 9,317 U.S. Attendees in one NHANES cohort found that higher intakes the ultra-processed foods were connected with greater usage of polished carbohydrate, added sugars, and saturated fat. At the same time, intakes of fiber, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E decreased. <10>Another observational examine among virtually 20,000 Spanish college graduates in the Seguimiento college of Navarra cohort discovered that higher consumption (more than 4 servings every day) the ultra-processed food was associated with a 62% raised risk of fatality from any cause contrasted with lower intake (less than 2 servings every day). Because that each added daily offer of ultra-processed food, there to be an 18% increased risk of death. Based upon their findings, the researchers detailed the prestige of plans that limit the ratio of ultra-processed foodstuffs in the diet and also promote usage of unprocessed or minimally processed foods items to improve worldwide public health. <11> various other cohort research studies in France (NutriNet Santé) and also the U.S. (NHANES) have also found that intake of ultra-processed foodstuffs was directly associated with high all-cause mortality. <12,13>In 2019, a randomized controlled trial looked at whether ultra-processed foods, as identified under the NOVA classification, can indeed cause people come eat more. Ten men and also ten females were randomized to receive either an ultra-processed diet or unprocessed diet because that 14 days, followed by 14 much more days the the alternative diet. The diet were relatively equal in calories, sugar, fat, fiber, and other nutrients, and also participants were permitted to eat as lot or as tiny as castle liked. The study uncovered that attendees ate about 500 calories an ext on the ultra-processed diet and also gained load (about 2 pounds). <14> most of the extra calories came from carbohydrate and fats, and also the diet additionally increased their salt intake. Once the participants changed to the unprocessed diet, lock ate fewer calories and lost the weight. Follow to appetite surveys, the diets did not differ in levels of hunger, fullness, and also satisfaction, though participants tended to eat quicker on the ultra-processed diet.

The bottom line

Food handling is a spectrum that arrays from simple technologies choose freezing or milling, to the organization of additives the promote shelf security or rise palatability. As a general rule, emphasizing unprocessed or minimally processed foods in the daily diet is optimal. That said, the usage of processed foods is the selection of the consumer, and there are pros and cons that come v each type. The Nutrition facts Label and also ingredients list can be valuable tools in deciding once to encompass a handle food in the diet. Over there is evidence showing an association with certain varieties of food processing and also poor wellness outcomes (especially highly- or ultra-processed foods). This association uses mainly come ultra-processed foods that contain added sugars, excess sodium, and unhealthful fats.

ReferencesU.S. Food and also Drug Administration. Food Labeling Guide: Guidance because that Industry. January 2013.

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Healthy Oils

Use healthy oils (like olive and also canola oil) because that cooking, top top salad, and also at the table. Border butter. Avoid trans fat.

HEALTHYOILSWaterDrink water, tea, or coffee (with small or no sugar). Border milk/dairy (1-2 servings/day) and also juice (1 tiny glass/day). Avoid sugary drinks.

WATERVegetablesThe much more veggies — and the greater the range — the better. Potatoes and French fries don’t count.

VEGETABLESFruitsEat plenty of fruit of all colors

FRUITSHealthy ProteinChoose fish, poultry, beans, and also nuts; border red meat and cheese; avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other handle meats.

HEALTHYPROTEINWhole GrainsEat a variety of totality grains (like whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice). Limit polished grains (like white rice and also white bread).

WHOLEGRAINSStay ActiveIncorporate physical activity into your everyday routine.

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