What are Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods?

In response to today’s fast paced lifestyle, convenience foods have become a common choice for many individuals. Convenience foods come in the form of fast food to frozen meals. Such convenience foods and beverages are commonly considered processed. 

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Though microwavable dinners and frozen pizzas are processed food items, surprisingly bagged spinach and roasted nuts are processed foods as well. According to Registered Dietitian Taylor Wolfram, processed foods are foods that are “cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time we cook, bake or prepare food, we’re processing food” (2019). 

Processed foods can be categorized as: minimally-, moderately-, heavily-, or ultra-processed. Chopped apples, roasted nuts, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna are considered minimally-processed foods. Examples of moderately-processed foods like pasta sauce, yogurt, and cake mixes. Heavily-processed foods include ready-to-eat foods such as crackers, granola, and deli meat. Other heavily processed food are pre-made items like frozen pizza and microwavable meals. (Wolfram, 2019). 

These heavily processed food items are similar to ultra-processed foods as they both include various additives and modifications. In regards to ultra-processed foods, these foods are mostly or entirely made from substances derived from food and additives. As mentioned by Registered Dietitian Cara Rosenbloom, ultra-processed foods and beverages include pre-made meals as well as potato chips, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, candy, and soft drinks. 

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Ultra-processed foods are almost always low in nutritional value and high in calories. They have little nutritional value in that they contain poor quality fats like saturated and trans fats as well as added sugars and salt. Additionally, these foods are low in vitamins and minerals and little fiber content (Rico-Campà, et al., 2019). 

Studies have shown that due to the poor nutritional value of ultra-processed foods, they can have a harmful impact on an individual’s health such as increasing a person’s risk for cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, and hypertension (Rico-Campà, et al., 2019). Furthermore, studies have found that eating a high consumption of ultra-processed foods daily can increase the risk of mortality. Checkout https://www.hlcmuncie.com/nutrition-eating-habits-blogs/2019/6/5/ultra-processed-foods-linked-to-higher-mortality to learn more about how ultra-processed foods are linked to early mortality. 

Given the health risk of eating ultra-processed foods it is important to choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods more often as they offer more nutritional value. Some minimally processed foods that offer good nutrition include orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D or prewashed spinach for convenience (Wolfram, 2019). 

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It is recommended that processed foods and beverages be included in the diet only in moderation. It is also important to check the food labels as such foods, as they tend to be high in added sugars and sodium. 

Overall, the key is to stick to foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed due to necessary preparations like bagging, chopping, cooking, etc. when possible. These foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. 

References: 

Rico-Campà, A., Martínez-González, M. A., Alvarez-Alvarez, I., Mendonça, R. D., Fuente-Arrillaga, C. D., Gómez-Donoso, C., & Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2019). Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ, 365(L1949), 1-11. doi:10.1136/bmj.l1949 

Rosenbloom, C. (n.d.). What is ultra-processed food? Retrieved June 28, 2019, from https://www.heartandstroke.ca/articles/what-is-ultra-processed-food 

Wolfram, T. (2019, February 11). Processed Foods: What’s OK and What to Avoid. Retrieved June 28, 2019, from https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/processed-foods-whats-ok-and-what-to-avoid