Many studies confirm that eating processed foods can lead to cancer, heart disease, obesity and well, early death.
But, what exactly is a processed food?
Using a four-tiered system called NOVA, nutrition experts and scientists classify everything we eat into one of four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed food/ drink products. When researchers do studies involving “processed foods”, they are usually referring to ultra-processed food/ drink products. Here are more detailed explanations on each category:
Unprocessed foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, roots, etc. from plant foods, animal meat, fungi and algae. These can be fresh, frozen, or even fermented. Dry beans, grains like rice or steel-cut oats, seafood, nuts and spices are also unprocessed foods. The key point is that they have not been treated with additives, injected with salt or rubbed with oil until they’re about to be eaten.
Processed culinary ingredients are ingredients made from unprocessed foods, like vegetable oils, butter and lard. This category also includes honey from honeycombs, sugar from cane and syrup from maple trees.
Processed foods are items that have added ingredients like sugar, salt and fat to help keep them edible longer. Canned fruits, leavened bread, cheese, pickles, alcohol and salted nuts all make this list.
Ultra-processed foods are food items that are ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat. These foods are often manufactured in factories. They are broken down from their whole or fresh form and treated with thickeners, colours and additives. They might contain high fructose corn syrup or protein isolates, or they might be fried before being packaged. These foods “often have a higher content of total fat, saturated fat, added sugar, energy density, and salt, along with a lower fibre and vitamin density,” explains one study from the Epidemiology and Statistics Research Center at Sorbonne Paris Cité in France. Examples of ultra-processed foods include candy, mass-produced breads and baked goods, hot dogs, processed meats, chicken nuggets, French fries, dehydrated soups, ready-to-eat meals with food additives, margarine, packaged granola bars, carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks.
These ultra-processed foods are what researchers have found to be linked to more cancer and heart disease cases, weight gain and early deaths. On the other hand, many studies show that consuming a diet high in whole, unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains protects against disease and supports optimal health.