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What You Need to Know About the Term "Processed Food"

The recent movement to include a calorie count on menu items was intended to help people make healthier food choices when eating out. There are a few major problems with this! Firstly, a calorie count does not tell you the nutrient balance of the dish, are the main calories from fats, carbs, proteins. Second what is the quality of these nutrients? Are they minimally or highly processed? Third can we trust that the calories have been properly assessed? Is the portion size always the same? I partnered in a food business and we were required to place a calorie count on our product. How did I do this? An internet calorie calculator (actually 3 different ones). Often each of these 3 calculators would give 3 different answers, I was fair and would average these out, but I know many other food producers that would always take the lowest possible number.

Anyway, is it even fair to judge a food based solely on its calorie count?

A handful of raw nuts is a great source of nutrient dense calories while that same number of calories in a fast-food burger is severely lacking in nutritional balance. That handful of nuts is likely to keep you feeling full longer and doesn’t contain highly processed foodstuff.

“Processed foodstuff”, huh? The Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations uses the NOVA classification system to classify processing that occurs after foods have been separated from nature and before they are consumed by the public. They believe that “the most important factor when considering food, nutrition and public health is not nutrients, is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed”.

So let’s take a look at what are considered processed foods and why are they “bad” for your health? NOVA considers 4 types of processed foods: minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, ultra-processed foods.

Unprocessed and Minimally processed Foods

As the title implies the first category defined by NOVA discusses eating food straight from the earth. The following methods of preparation are intended to preserve the nutrient quality and density of the food.

  • Cutting off inedible parts

  • Drying crushing, grinding

  • Filtering, natural fermentation, natural pasteurization

  • Roasting, boiling, chilling

This category refers to all whole foods including organically raised ethically acquired animal products.

Processed Culinary Ingredients

These are limited ingredients that are rarely consumed on their own and are nutrient depleted in some way. They include:

  • Oils

  • Butter, lard

  • Sugar

  • Salt

In general, we do not worry too much about this category diet wise. BUT not all of these ingredients are created equal. White table sugar can be considered an ultra processed food where organic cane sugar, honey, maple syrup are not.

Processed Foods

Here’s where things start to get tricky, by NOVA definition processed foods are foods from group A that undergo some form of processing that modifies or enhances their sensory quality. They contain 2-3 extra ingredients but are recognizable as modified versions of the original. These include things such as:

  • Canned vegetable and legumes

  • Pickled vegetables

  • Canned or jarred fruit

  • Simple natural cheeses (created by minimal ingredient addition plus natural aging)

These foods are generally considered to be balanced, retaining most of their nutritional value, but they can become ultra processed foods when the sugar, salt, fat additions come in excess.

Ultra Processed Foods

Finally we come to the problem food category! Ultra processed foods are those that contain industrial formulations of ingredients. They include such things as:

  • carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices that have added colours & sweeteners

  • sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks

  • candies

  • mass produced packaged breads and buns, cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes and cake mixes

  • margarine and other spreads

  • sweetened breakfast ‘cereals’ and fruit yoghurt and ‘energy’ drinks

  • pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza dishes

  • poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’

  • sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products

  • powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts

  • baby formula

  • and many other types of products

The processing of these foodstuffs involve several steps and different industries. It begins with fractioning of whole foods into substances. “These substances are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (such as corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming. Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications. Subsequent processes involve the assembly of unmodified and modified food substances with little if any whole food using industrial techniques such as extrusion, moulding and pre-frying. Colours, flavours, emulsifiers and other additives are frequently added to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable.”

Sounding delicious?

These foods lack any nutritional value, so companies must add nutrients back in. These added vitamins and minerals are created in a lab through further chemical processes. All of this leads to “foods” that might taste good and have a great mouth feel but leave our bodies lacking nutritionally. This leads to cravings and feelings of hunger, making us eat more. The addition of fats, sugars and salts for that “great” taste create calorie dense foods that may provide energy but do not satisfy our nutrient needs.

To make matters worse these ultra processed ingredients come with a slew of health concerns. Every man-made product must go through testing to ensure human consumption is safe within limits. So yes that can of prepared pasta and “meat”balls may be perfectly safe when eaten on its own here and there when the majority of food choices is from categories 1 and 2. BUT in this western world where ultra-processed is cheaper than whole foods, easier to prepare and more readily available our diets have tipped the scales in favour of category 4 options. Thus many of us are often eating more than the upper limits of these industrial made ingredients, leading to a multitude of health issues.


I challenge you to go 1 month without consuming processed and ultra processed foods. Download this free 1 week meal plan, meal planning sheet and journal pages to help you succeed in this challenge.

No Processed Foods Challenge
Download PDF • 20.71MB

If you want support during this challenge I offer a custom package "The Health Challenge Plan" which includes 1 - 1 hour Mindful Nutrition Session, 1 - 30 minute follow-up, 2 - 15 minute follow-up's, and Email support for duration of the challenge, plus the challenge booklet.

Take charge of your health with the Introduction to Mindful Eating Course and the Discovering Intolerances Course created by yours truly!



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