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by Hanna Keith Santos Barrientos
Nutrition is a crucial element in achieving a healthy lifestyle. However, with most food products being advertised as healthy and nutritious, one may wonder if they’re making the right food choices.
If you’re someone who wants to lead a nutritious diet, you can start by understanding the difference between natural and processed foods.
Food processing techniques have been around since prehistoric times, which made numerous raw ingredients safer to consume. However, industrialization radically changed the way food processing is performed. It has allowed companies to make ready-to-eat, more convenient food with fewer nutrients and health benefits. Now, instead of eating home-cooked meals with minimally processed ingredients, the majority of Western diets are composed of highly processed food products.
Despite that, doctors and scientific researchers have raised concerns about consuming processed foods. Some studies have mentioned that processed foods, specifically ultra-processed ones, are not “real” foods because they contain limited nutrients or present no real nutrition. This article will examine the impact of processed foods on health and discuss different strategies for making healthier food choices.
What are Processed Foods?
Food processing is a combination of techniques that transforms the properties or composition of ingredients before being consumed. This can be as simple as grinding, cutting, and freezing, which is done at home, or as complex as hydrogenation and canning, which can be seen in most industries. If we follow this definition of food processing, then virtually all foods you find in the supermarket can be considered “processed”. So to avoid any confusion, we can categorize food according to the extent of processing it has undergone.
There are actually different food classification systems used in different studies today, but the NOVA classification system has been the most popular worldwide. According to the NOVA classification, there are four types of food and products.
- Group 1(Unprocessed or minimally processed food): Fresh foods that are consumed directly or altered minimally, like drying, boiling, or grinding. Minimal processing is often executed to make food easier to digest, preserve or enhance its nutritional quality. Examples are dried fruits, wheat flour, pasteurized milk, eggs, and frozen meat.
- Group 2 (Processed culinary ingredients): These are substances from Group 1 which are pressed, refined, and dried to be used as ingredients and seasonings for meal preparation. Group 2 can be preserved easily but is not usually eaten by itself. Examples are honey, seawater salt, vegetable oils, animal fat, and vinegar.
- Group 3 (Processed foods): Ready-to-eat food which contains two or more ingredients. These foods have undergone simple chemical processes like preservation and fermentation but usually have added fat, salt, or sugar to increase palatability. Examples are canned fish or vegetables, cheese, nuts with added salt, cured meat, and bread.
- Group 4 (Ultra-processed food): These are food and drink produced by mixing industrial ingredients. These industrial formulations are derived from whole foods but don’t resemble any natural food. For example, tomato ketchup is derived from tomatoes but doesn’t look like tomatoes. Other examples are soft drinks, chocolates, cakes, sausages, and chicken nuggets.
The amount of food nutrients can depend on the processing the food has undergone. So, researching is essential to ensure you’re getting the optimum nutrition.
What is the difference between natural and processed foods?
As seen in the previous section, there are different classifications of foods. Some are minimally processed, while some are extremely artificial. In this case, the natural foods are those in Group 1(unprocessed and Minimally processed) classification. In contrast, the processed foods are Group 3(Processed Foods) and Group 4(Ultra-processed Foods).
By far, maintaining a natural food-rich diet is the healthiest choice in terms of nutrition. This is because natural or whole foods are rich in nutrients such as minerals, fiber, healthy fatty acids, amino acids, and phytochemicals.
However, these nutrients can be lost when it has undergone food processing methods. For instance, whole wheat contains fiber and micronutrients like potassium and zinc, but as it undergoes a refinement process, the amount of these nutrients drops. Even if industries fortify white flour by adding vitamins, the essential micronutrients and fiber are still significantly higher in whole food.
Another reason why eating natural foods is healthier is that highly processed foods contain added ingredients such as simple sugars, unhealthy fats, and salts. Food manufacturers add such ingredients to prevent spoilage and increase their shelf lives. They also add more salts and sugars to improve the flavor and palatability of different foods. But because of increased palatability, individuals are tempted to eat more, which can lead to overeating.
What makes processed food less healthy?
While processed foods have saturated the food market, doctors and nutritionists alike have discouraged eating them because of the lower nutritional value and the added ingredients such as fats, sugars and sodium that can cause several risks when eaten in excess. Overeating processed foods can also impact our overall diet quality and can lead to nutritional imbalances and deficiencies that may contribute to health risks. Here are some health risks associated with processed food.
Weight Gain and Obesity
Processed foods are most commonly associated with gaining weight and obesity. This is mainly because of the sugars and fats added to them while processing. In some industries, salts and sugars are added to preserve the food for a longer period, while some take advantage of the addictive and palatable nature of these ingredients to attract customers. In any case, high levels of salt, sugar and artificial flavors make processed foods, especially ultra-processed ones, highly palatable and hypercaloric. It also delays our satiety, driving us to overeat and leading to weight gain.
Another reason why we eat more processed food than intended may be due to its structure. Aside from having higher energy density, processed foods have oro-sensory characteristics such as softer texture and less fibrous, making them easy to chew. Basically, they are easier to eat than minimally processed foods. But these characteristics can cause us to increase our food intake in a shorter amount of time.
Did you know that most of the total and added sugars in the US diet come from ultra-processed food? In fact, a study published in The BMJ found that the main source (almost 90%) of added sugars in the US diet is processed food.
Excessive intake of sugar is not only associated with obesity but also with other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Mainly, ultra-processed foods in the form of sweetened drinks and packed baked goods are considered to have a high glycemic load, which could promote sudden changes in blood sugar and worsen diabetic conditions.
Since most processed foods contain high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sodium, eating too much can increase high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risks, including hypertension and stroke.
Some processed foods also contain artificial and unhealthy fats. Note that “good” fats are those monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids that are mostly found in natural plant oils and fishes. These fats are liquid at room temperature and are considered good for the heart. However, processed foods such as those in fast food restaurants mostly contain saturated and trans fats. These fats raise low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or bad cholesterol levels, further increasing the risk of heart disease.
Other Health Risks
Because processed foods typically have a low nutritional profile, their effect can be observed in the gut microbiota. A 2018 comprehensive review showed recent evidence about how ultra-processed foods can change gut microbiome composition in animals and lead to dietary inflammation. This inflammation and oxidative stress are linked to digestive issues like constipation and bloating, as well as more serious health risks like irritable bowel syndrome, depression, dementia and cancer.
Making Healthier Food Choices
In this article, it is clear that eating natural or minimally processed foods is the best diet for health and nutrition. However, you don’t need to avoid processed foods completely. Note that some processed foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals that you might need, especially when you have a vitamin deficiency.
It’s also perfectly okay to enjoy your favorite snack from time to time, as long as your main diet is composed of nutritionally balanced and minimally processed foods. Increasing your natural food intake and reducing ultra-processed food consumption is one of the most effective ways to enhance your diet and improve your overall health.
If your current diet is significantly composed of ultra-processed foods, you may want to start cutting back now. Consider reducing your processed food intake slowly. For example, if you’ve been eating processed foods every day, try reducing it to 4 meals a week and replace them with home-cooked meals.
Remember that making changes to your eating habits takes time and consistency. So, start small and focus on progress rather than perfection. If you’re facing difficulty in changing your diet and reducing your ultra-process food intake, it’s best to consult with a certified dietitian or nutritionist to help you achieve your goal towards a healthier and more nourishing lifestyle.
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Visioli, Francesco, et al. “The ultra-processed foods hypothesis: A product processed well beyond the basic ingredients in the package.” Nutrition Research Reviews (2022): 1-31.
Elizabeth, Leonie, et al. “Ultra-processed foods and health outcomes: a narrative review.” Nutrients 12.7 (2020): 1955.
Capozzi, Francesco, et al. “A multidisciplinary perspective of ultra-processed foods and associated food processing technologies: a view of the sustainable road ahead.” Nutrients 13.11 (2021): 3948.
The Nutrition Source. Processed Foods and Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
Shi, Zumin. “Gut microbiota: An important link between western diet and chronic diseases.” Nutrients 11.10 (2019): 2287.
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