By Melissa Chavez, RD LDN
You have likely heard before that you should avoid processed foods and/or only shop the store's perimeter to avoid processed foods. However, this type of advice can lead to some confusion.
First, let's define processed food:
"Any raw agricultural commodity altered from its natural state. e.g. washed, milled, chopped, heated, pasteurized, cooked, canned, frozen, dehydrated, mixed, or packaged"
Under these standards, almost all foods at the supermarket are considered to be processed to some degree. Can you see how the advice to avoid processed foods gets a little confusing? It is crucial to then consider the levels of processing. In 2009, the NOVA classification was created to help differentiate the processing levels. Read on below to learn more.
Unprocessed or minimally processed
Minimally processed foods have been slightly altered. The main purpose of this processing is for preservation, and the nutritional content is not substantially changed. E.g., cleaning and removing unwanted parts, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and vacuum-packing. These processes allow food to be stored longer and remain safe for longer.
Processed culinary ingredients
Minimally processed food ingredients derived by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. These ingredients are not typically used independently but are often used to prepare minimally processed foods. Examples are oils from plants, nuts, and seeds, or flour and pasta made from whole grains.
These foods from either of the above groups have ingredients added for flavor and texture. Examples are foods like pasta sauce, yogurt, and cake mixes.
Foods from the previous group go beyond adding salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. This promotes shelf stability, preserves the texture, and increases palatability. These are 'ready-to-eat foods' like crackers, deli meat, sugary drinks, frozen pizza, and chips.
Now that you know the differences, you may realize that the level of processing may make food less healthful.
It is also good to remember that some processing helps foods be more nutrient dense. For example, juices and milk may be fortified with calcium and vitamin D and many breakfast kinds of cereal are fortified with iron and fiber.
It is okay to occasionally consume processed foods; minimally processed foods have a place in healthy diets. However, you may want to keep UPFs (ultra-processed foods) to a minimum, as they are often associated with poor diet quality due to the ingredients added during processing. Look for hidden sugar, fat, and salt.
Try to do more food prep and cooking at home to cut down on processed foods.
So, all in all, the generic recommendation of avoiding processed foods has good intentions but it is wise to consider what that really means.