There was a time in human history that finding and then eating food was challenging. Before the luxury of electricity, packaged foods, and the trucking industry, people dealt with where their next meal would come from and then keep food safe to consume without becoming dangerously ill from a food-borne pathogen. Depending on where they lived, many individuals also likely had limited foods to choose from year-round. For example, foods available to people living in colder climates would have limited access if any at all to foods available to people living in warmer, tropical regions.
Today, the food industry has blossomed transforming our food environment. From canned, bagged, and boxed goods, frozen foods and meals, and year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, safe and nutritious food have never been more abundant. The science of processed foods has played a huge role in preventing food spoilage, extending shelf-life, and enriching refined foods like processed grains to still offer essential nutrients. While these advancements in the food industry have been welcomed and necessary, has this pendulum swung too far?
When the processing of foods began, the goal was to extend the preservation of food making it safe to eat and to retain or enhance vitamin/mineral content. Today, many foods found in grocery stores are not just ‘processed’ but now are considered, ‘ultra-processed.”
Defining unprocessed to ultra-processed foods
It’s important to understand the various definitions used in the food industry when it comes to processed foods. We all have to eat and it’s to our advantage to be able to distinguish between healthy and not-so-healthy foods that can be harming our health.
Here are categories defining the differences between unprocessed to ultra-processed foods using the NOVA classification system:
Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Foods in this category are still in their original form – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains like oatmeal, barley or farro, legumes, nuts, meats, seafood, herbs, spices, garlic, eggs, and milk. These real, whole foods should be the mainstay of what you eat.
Foods considered processed foods are changed just enough to make them ready or safe to eat or preserve them (through processes such as pasteurizing, cooking, and freezing) to have an extended shelf life. Some of these foods may have ingredients such as oil, sugar, or salt added to them automatically making them a ‘processed food.’ Examples of processed foods are a loaf of bread, cheese, tofu, and canned tuna, beans, and tomato products such as tomato sauce, tomato paste, and diced or whole tomatoes. These foods have been minimally altered but not to the extent they could be detrimental to your health. These convenient and nutritious foods are also a large part of helping feed yourself and your family healthy meals.
Foods in this category go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.) and contain many added ingredients, especially excess sugar, fat, and sodium. These foods are considered highly palatable but are devoid of health-promoting nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Examples include soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, energy and granola bars, lunch meat/cold cuts, white bread, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, frozen pizza, frozen TV dinners, fries, and more. Unfortunately, these foods are common in our pantries as 50% of our calories come from this category of foods.
Why are ultra-processed foods harmful to your health?
What we eat has a big impact on our health. If a large percentage of your food choices are ultra-processed foods, you may not be getting enough beneficial nutrients that your body requires for good health. The more ultra-processed foods you eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of your diet.
Diseases and conditions in which diet plays a role – obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers – are collectively responsible for almost 70 percent of deaths worldwide. A rapidly growing body of evidence suggests that the increasing prevalence of these diseases and the worldwide obesity epidemic are related to readily available ultra-processed foods.
Scientific studies have shown that ultra-processed foods are a problem. A large observational 2019 study in France found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods, such as packaged snacks, desserts, sugary drinks, processed meats, and ready-made meals, was associated with a higher death risk among middle-aged adults.
In more recent research, a 2021 review of all available research found high consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with increased risk of overweight, obesity, abdominal obesity, all-cause mortality, metabolic syndrome, cardiometabolic diseases, frailty, irritable bowel syndrome, recurring indigestion, cancer, and depression in adults. It was also associated with wheezing (not asthma) and metabolic syndrome in adolescents and dyslipidemia (high blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides) in children.
Tips on limiting the intake of ultra-processed foods
Now is the time to approach food buying and planning meals focusing on choosing to eat more whole and minimally processed foods. Phase-out purchases of ultra-processed foods or keep them to a minimum. Make at least 80 percent of the foods you eat be unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Here are other tips for limiting your intake of ultra-processed foods:
- Choose whole and minimally processed plant and animal foods
- Read labels looking for ingredient lists that are short and/or contain recognizable names of real foods
- Check your pantry, fridge, and freezer for ultra-processed foods and replace them with less processed options as your use them up.
- When eating out, choose dining options that are more homemade and use fast foods infrequently.
- Limit salt and sugar. When buying processed foods, look for products with the least added sugars and sodium (less than five percent Daily Value of sodium per serving is generally considered low, and more than 20 percent is high).
- Use the 1:10 Fiber Ratio Rule: For grain products (cereals, crackers, grain dishes, bread) make sure there is at least one gram of Dietary Fiber (the more the better) for every 10 grams of Total Carbohydrates per serving.