What Makes a Food Processed?

The world of food can be so confusing at times. There was a time when it was clear what food was – it came directly from nature – whether foraging, hunting, or farming.

Now there are so many things we eat that don’t resemble a natural food.

Michael Pollan has a famous quote, he said:

  • Eat Food – Not too much – Mostly Plants

And in his famous book, In Defense of Food, he defines what food should be. He says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

And, we can all agree that some things are obviously not recognizable by our great-great-grandmothers: candy bars, fast food, and sports drinks.

We can also say that many of the common health issues we face today: heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, cavities, etc. didn’t exist at anywhere near the rates before industrially processed foods became available.

But, where do we draw the line? How do we define processed? How processed is processed? And what the heck is ultra-processed?

Allow me to let you in on the internationally recognized classification system. And we’re going to go through it step-by-step with an apple.

 

UNPROCESSED

 

According to NOVA, the official definition of unprocessed or natural foods is:

“The edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals(muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae, and water, after separation from nature.”

This is like eating a whole apple right off the tree – clearly unprocessed.

 

MINIMALLY PROCESSED

 

Minimally processed foods are:

“natural foods altered by processes such as removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, pasteurization, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, or nonalcoholic fermentation. None of these processes adds substances such as salt, sugar, oils or fats to the original food.”

So, with our apple example, once you cut the apple’s core out and put the slices into a container to bring with you for your afternoon snack, you are processing it – minimally. You can even peel and boil that chopped apple to make applesauce. And, as long as you don’t add anything else (like cinnamon), it’s still considered minimally processed.

 

PROCESSED

 

Processed foods, on the other hand, are relatively simple products made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other processed ingredients to unprocessed foods.

“Most processed foods have two or three ingredients. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of bread and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. The main purpose of the manufacture of processed foods is to increase the durability of unprocessed foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.”

So, if you take that applesauce, add cinnamon, and/or use it in a recipe, you technically have processed the apple.

This can still be a healthy choice, as you’ll see in the next definition of ultra-processed.

 

ULTRA-PROCESSED

 

Here’s where things get interesting and scary!

Ultra-processed foods are:

“Industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilizers, and preservatives. Ingredients only found in ultra-processed products include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of [unprocessed] foods … or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product. [Unprocessed] foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.”

So, pre-packaged apple strudel with a long shelf life is very much an ultra-processed food. If you took a look at the ingredient list of pre-packaged apple strudel (one with a long shelf life), you would see added sugars, oils, preservatives, and flavour enhancers. And we can argue that the healthy apple is a small (very small) proportion of the strudel.

 

CONCLUSION

 

There is a clear delineation between unprocessed (the apple) and ultra-processed (the pre-packaged strudel with a long shelf life) foods. An apple is nowhere near what a mass produced apple strudel is. But, there are a couple of different categories in between these – namely minimally processed and processed.

It’s clear that unprocessed (apple) and minimally processed (plain applesauce) foods are almost always quite healthy and nutritious. It’s also clear that ultra-processed food is not so healthy.

Now that you know the definitions of these foods, I think you’ll agree with me that the commonly used term processed is often referring to the industrial ultra-processing of foods.

I’d love to hear your thought on these definitions. Let me know in the comments below.

 

Recipe (minimally processed): Slow-Cooker Applesauce

Serves 16

4 lbs apples, washed and chopped
¾ cup water

Instructions:

  1. Place apples and water in a large pot.
  2. Bring to a boil and simmer until apples are soft about 20 minutes.
  3. Blend or mash the apples into desired consistency.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Add some cinnamon for extra flavour, and use the applesauce to make overnight oats.

References:

http://www.summertomato.com/processed-food-vs-real-food

http://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/WN-2016-7-1-3-28-38-Monteiro-Cannon-Levy-et-al-NOVA.pdf

About Me

Hi, I’m Tracy! I create food solutions to feed your life goals. I’m a Nutritionist, chocoholic + superhero fan. Mom to three, wife to one, crazy about all four, and food! When you work with me you’ll learn to savour life and nourish all that it has to offer.

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If you have some nagging symptoms, it's possible that they're related to the foods you eat!

And we're not just talking digestive symptoms.

Even things like headaches, joint pain, or eczema can be related to food that you're sensitive to.

How would you find out if there is a food at the root of your issue?

Through an elimination diet!

Elimination diets are just that - eliminating certain foods. Then you reintroduce them back one at a time to see if you are sensitive to those foods.

It’s a strategic process that can be great… but also not so great.

In this weeks blog - link below - I share the pros and cons of elimination diets and my latest recipe - you'll never know that it eliminates the most common allergens (because it's so good).

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Know how your body REACTS to carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals

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