Processed Foods: What Does That Even Mean?

by Karen Kondor

DYK: there is a continuum for processed foods? And, not all processed foods are bad for you?

TL;DR: Not all processed foods are toxic, as social media may have you believe. Any food that undergoes some kind of processing is a processed food. Cheddar cheese is a processed food…but so is Cheez Whiz.

Let’s look at the details:

The NOVA Food Classification System is recognized worldwide as a tool for determining how processed a particular food is. The important thing to know is that there is a continuum for processed food.

At one end of the continuum are Unprocessed Foods; at the other, Ultra Processed Foods. In the middle, Minimally Processed Foods, & Processed Foods.

Unprocessed Foods are those that undergo no change to their structure before they hit store shelves. Fresh fruit & veggies are unprocessed foods.

Minimally Processed Foods are those that are altered in ways that do not add or introduce and new substance, such as fats, sugar, or salt. Think: cheese, unsalted butter, pasteurized milk, frozen fruits/veggies. Even meat would be considered minimally processed, as it doesn’t show up in the store as the whole animal; it’s gone through a process in order to be offered in a way that you can conveniently purchase & cook it.

Processed Foods are made by adding fats, oils, sugar, salt, & other ingredients to make them more durable, & usually more palatable. Various methods of food preservation can also land a food in the Processed Foods area of the continuum. Examples are canned goods, hummus, salsa, spaghetti sauce, guacamole, pre-seasoned meats.

Ultra-processed Foods are not simply modified foods. They are formulations of industrial ingredients & other substances derived from foods, plus additives. Most of them contain little, if any, intact food. These products are convenient, attractive, & profitable. Cheez Whiz, processed cheese slices, Cool Whip.

Diets consisting of high amounts of processed & ultra-processed foods are associated with weight gain to a greater extent than their minimally processed & unprocessed counterparts. Diets high in processed & ultra-processed foods also negatively affect our gut microbiome (due in large part to lack of fibre), & an increased risk of chronic disease.

With this knowledge in hand now, what to do?

It’s not possible, or practical, to always eat only unprocessed or minimally processed foods. The best game plan is to, as often as possible, consume foods from the Unprocessed/Minimally Processed/Processed side of the continuum, and less often, choose foods from the Ultra-processed foods end. 

I, for one, do love how my body & brain feel when I mostly consume less processed foods. But, I will also not be giving up Nanaimo bars.


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