Are all Processed Food Bad for You?


Healthy eating guidelines tell us that we need to limit processed foods because they are usually high in calories, fat, or sugar, and are nutritionally poor, but what exactly is processed food? And are all processed foods bad for you?

The classification system to differentiate processed foods based on the degree of industrial food processing is called NOVA. This system was developed by an international panel of foods scientists and researchers, and it divides foods into four categories

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods 

These are natural and whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, fish, meats, eggs, and milk. These should form the basis of your diet.

2. Processed culinary ingredients

These are the foods that make the first category's food taste better. Examples are herbs, spices, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and oils.

3. Processed foods

These are the foods to which other ingredients have been added (such as oil, sugar, or salt) before they are packaged to modify or improve the products. Examples are canned beans, canned fish, smoked meats, cheeses, and fresh bread. These foods have been altered, but this doesn't mean they're unhealthy.

4. Ultra-processed foods

These are industrial manipulated products and usually contain five to twenty ingredients made not from the whole food itself but mostly from substances extracted from other foods or synthesized in laboratories to improve and enhance the product's taste. They go through processes such as frying, high-pressure steaming, molding, and milling. They contain added ingredients for cosmetic reasons (colorings) or sensory reasons (texture, crunch) and usually contain preservatives, emulsifiers, enzymes, and artificial sweeteners. Ultra-processed foods are full of empty calories and nutritionally poor. Excess consumption correlates with higher obesity levels, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol and hypertension, and lower socioeconomic status. Additionally, there is overwhelming evidence suggesting that they have negative effects on our gut microbes as well as our hearts and brains.

Examples of the consumption of ultra-processed foods by country:

  • PORTUGAL: 10%
  • ITALY: 13%
  • FRANCE: 14%
  • SPAIN: 20%
  • FINLAND: 40%
  • GERMANY: 46%
  • U.K: 50%
  • USA: 70%

As you can see there's a distinct difference between types of processed and ultra-processed foods. And no, no all processed food is bad for you. Many processed foods can be healthy and nutrient-dense.  For example, freezing is a great way for preserving the micronutrients found in fruits and vegetables, and many canned oily fish are similar in their nutrient density to fresh. Actually, canned salmon contains more calcium than fresh salmon.

On the contrary, high processed foods are usually high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar and offer little nutritional diversity or benefit, that is why they shouldn't be eaten in excess, or on a regular basis. 

One of the reasons why these products are so popular is because they are extremely cheap. The cost of ultra-processed foods has declined over the last two decades in opposition to the costs of fruits and vegetables which have increased. The food industry makes huge profits from ultra-processed foods since they use cheap ingredients, and are mostly mass-produced.

The same products and ingredients can have very different nutritious value and impact in our health depending on their degree of processing. If you have trouble recognizing most of the ingredients on a food label, it's probably a sign that the product has been highly processed.

Try to eat unprocessed or not very processed foods and try to make your own versions of your favorite processed foods such as pizza, burgers, or sweets your body will thank you.

Let me help you to create a nutritional and lifestyle plan to achieve your health goals.