We all know eating healthy is important, but do we all understand the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods? It’s more than just listening to your body; it’s about understanding what goes into different types of food. In this blog post, we will focus on the differences between processed and ultra-processed foods so you can make informed decisions when selecting a nutritious diet. Let’s take a closer look at how these two types of food are created and what they offer nutritionally!
What Are Highly Processed Foods?
Many people believe that all processed foods are inherently unhealthy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, nearly all foods go through some degree of processing, whether it’s cooking, canning, or freezing. Take dried beans, for example. Manufacturers process them to make them shelf-stable, but they still need to be healthier. Researchers have identified four categories using the NOVA food classification system to understand food processing better. Awareness of these categories can help us make more informed food choices.
NOVA Group 1:
When it comes to healthy eating, the NOVA Group 1 food are some of the best choices you can make. This category includes minimally processed and unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts. While some of these items may have undergone cooking or pasteurization to extend their shelf life or ensure they’re safe to eat, they’re still far less processed than many other types of foods. Whether you’re looking to boost your vitamin and mineral intake, increase your fiber intake, or feel better overall, adding more NOVA Group 1 food to your diet is an excellent starting point.
NOVA Group 2:
Group 2 consists of processed foods like oils, butter, cheese, and canned tuna. These items have been stripped of their natural properties in order to extend their shelf life or make them more convenient to use. While they can still offer some nutritional benefits, such as healthy fats and proteins, researchers suggest limiting your intake of these foods since they typically contain high levels of added sugars, salt, or fat.
NOVA Group 3:
Processed foods include foods such as some breads, cheese spreads and sauces, sausages, sweetened breakfast cereals, and ready-made meals. These highly processed items may contain added sugar, salt, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. While some of them can still offer some nutritional benefits, like whole grains or proteins, experts suggest limiting your intake of these items due to their high levels of added fat, sugar, and salt.
NOVA Group 4:
The last category includes ultra-processed foods like sugary drinks, frozen meals, sweet snacks, and processed meats. These are the least healthy -or totally unhealthy – options available since they contain few (if any) nutritional benefits. Not only that, but they often contain high levels of unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt.
Examples of Highly Processed Foods:
After understanding the characteristics that classify food as highly processed, you may be curious about specific foods and drinks that belong to this category. Here are some examples:
- Soft drinks and energy drinks
- Sweetened breakfast cereals
- Processed meats, like hot dogs or sausages
- Industrial cakes, cookies, and pastries
- Prepackaged snacks like chips or crackers
- Instant meals, frozen dinners, and fast food items
- Packaged buns and bread
- Candies and other confectionery
- Industrial ice cream, cocoa mixes, and sweetened yogurt
- Froot Loops, sweetened oatmeals, Trix, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch
- Cheese spreads and sauces
- Sugary or artificially sweetened condiments like ketchup, BBQ sauce, and mayonnaise.
Main Difference Between Processed And Ultra Processed Foods
There are a few key differences between processed and ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods often pack a major calorie punch compared to their minimally processed counterparts. Take potato chips, for example. A 100-gram serving of the crispy snack contains a whopping 545 calories, while a plain baked potato of the same size sits at only 95 calories. The culprit? Processing, including the calorie-heavy frying that gives chips their addictive crunch. Of course, not all processed foods fit this calorie-heavy profile, especially those marketed toward weight loss. That said, more than merely counting calories is needed when assessing a food’s nutritional value. So, when it comes to healthy choices, it’s best to focus on the overall nutritional package rather than a single number on the label.
Ultra-processed foods are not only highly palatable but also highly addictive, thanks to added sugars. From sweetened breakfast cereals to packaged baked goods and beverages, these products are designed to tickle our taste buds and make us crave more. Unfortunately, many of these highly processed foods marketed toward children and adolescents contain shockingly high amounts of added sugars. One popular cereal, Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries, contains a staggering 16 grams of added sugar per serving, which is equivalent to about four teaspoons of sugar.
Choosing a nutritious breakfast can set the tone for the rest of your day, and opting for cooked rolled oats with fresh berries and natural peanut butter is a great way to fuel your body. Not only is it a tasty and satisfying meal, but it also contains zero grams of added sugar. On the other hand, popular beverages like energy drinks, fruit punch, and soda can be loaded with sugar. In fact, just an 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull packs in a staggering 26.6 grams of sugar or 6.24 teaspoons. When it comes to fueling our bodies, it’s important to make informed choices and opt for healthier, more nutritious options.
Ultra-processed foods are often high in salt content. This is because salt is frequently added to these types of foods as a preservative and to enhance their flavor. Additionally, ultra-processed foods are often high in sodium due to the use of processed ingredients like sauces, seasonings, and condiments.
Consuming excessive amounts of salt can lead to a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The World Health Organization recommends that individuals consume no more than 5 grams of salt per day, which is equivalent to about one teaspoon.
It’s important to read food labels and be aware of the sodium content in the foods you are consuming, particularly with ultra-processed foods. Choosing fresh, whole foods and cooking meals at home with herbs and spices instead of salt can help reduce overall sodium intake. Additionally, reducing intake of ultra-processed foods and opting for minimally processed options can also help lower sodium intake.
Ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of unhealthy fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats. These types of fats can contribute to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, high cholesterol, and obesity.
Trans fats, which are often found in ultra-processed foods like baked goods and fried foods, can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the body. Saturated fats, which are commonly found in processed meats, dairy products, and fried foods, can also raise LDL cholesterol levels.
It’s important to read food labels and be aware of the types and amounts of fats in the foods you are consuming, particularly with ultra-processed foods. Choosing whole, minimally processed foods and cooking meals at home with healthy fats like olive oil and avocado can help promote better health. Additionally, reducing intake of ultra-processed foods and opting for fresh, whole foods can also help lower intake of unhealthy fats.
Should You Avoid All Processed Foods?
Eating healthy doesn’t mean completely cutting out your favorite snacks and treats. In fact, food plays a crucial role in our lives and brings us joy and happiness. However, it’s essential to avoid or reduce the consumption of highly processed foods to the minimum and focus on eating mostly whole, minimally processed foods. Numerous studies have shown that consuming a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods can lower the risk of chronic health conditions and increase longevity. On the other hand, frequent consumption of ultra-processed foods can lead to harmful health effects. The best way to strike a healthy balance between enjoying foods we love and prioritizing our overall long-term health is to eat functional foods and desserts. These foods not only keep the flavor and the pleasure of eating but they also supply our bodies with the nutrients we need.
The differences between processed and ultra-processed foods are clear. Processed foods have been through some form of processing that helps preserve them and make them safer to consume, while ultra-processed food goes through additional chemical, physical or sensory treatments that give them added flavor or texture. Understanding the differences between these two types of food and how they are made makes it easier to make healthy choices in terms of what you consume and put into your body.
Eating a balanced diet full of natural foods such as beans, sweet potatoes, fruits, and vegetables or functional desserts will help keep you healthy and fit for years to come. Taking the time to learn about what is in your food is a small sacrifice when compared to the long-term benefits of improving one’s overall health. So take the time to do research on what kinds of food to buy and confidently enjoy a healthy lifestyle! Or, just like me, cook and bake as much as you can homemade meals and desserts. This way, you know exactly what you are eating and the quality of the ingredients you are consuming.