Do You Know The Difference Between Unprocessed, Lightly-Processed And Ultra-Processed Food?

January 17, 2012

Nowadays we hear a lot of times the term “processed” when it comes to food. And you probably have also heard that we should be eating more unprocessed foods and less processed foods.
But do you know what exactly is processed food or unprocessed food, for that matter?
Yes, I mean, everybody can tell that an apple or a banana are unprocessed and that an Oreo cookie is processed but what about flour, olive oil or yogurt? Can you tell if those are processed or unprocessed?

If you’re interested in this topic you’re probably going to be happy that nutritionists have created a system of categorization to differentiate between different kinds of food.
It’s also pretty simple and you’ll be amazed how
this will change your point of view when you’ll be at the supermarket picking up groceries.
I found a really interesting paper authored by Prof. Carlos Monteiro that with exceptional simplicity provides clear-cut classification of processed foods.
If you’re interested in reading the whole paper you can download it for free at here I will just briefly sum-up the main ideas of his writing.

Nuggets and fries: a classic example of ultra-processed food

The 3 groups classification of food

Prof. Monteiro and his colleagues classified food into three distinct groups: (1) unprocessed or minimally processed foods; (2) processed culinary or food industry ingredients; and (3) ultra-processed foods.
Each of the three groups includes a range of items some of which are more, or less, processed than others however nutritionist considered that the public interest could be best served by simplicity.

Group 1 foods (unprocessed or minimally processed)

Group 1 comprises unprocessed foods: that is to say all those found in nature that can be consumed fresh in whole form.
The methods used to produce group 1 minimally processed foods do not substantially change the nutritional properties of the original unprocessed foods, and may improve them, intrinsically or in effect.
Such processes include: cleaning, removal of inedible fractions, grating, squeezing, draining, flaking, drying, parboiling, bottling (without additions other than water), chilling, freezing, fermentation (when the result is not alcoholic), pasteurisation, vacuum and gas packing, and simple wrapping.
The results are minimally processed foods: meat and milk, whole grains, pulses (legumes), nuts, and fruits, and vegetables, roots and tubers sold as such, are usually minimally processed in various ways.
Minimal processing is usually undertaken by the primary producer, packing house distributor or retailer, as well as by manufacturers, for eventual sale to consumers.

Group 2 foods (processed culinary or food industry ingredients)

Group 2 foods include ingredients that are produced by extraction from unprocessed foods. Processes used include pressing, crushing, milling, 'refining', 'purifying', hydrogenation, hydrolysation, extrusion, and use of enzymes and other additives.
One purpose of these processes is to convert unprocessed foods into culinary ingredients.
Examples of group 2 ingredients are oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours and pastas (when made of flour and water), and starches. Most ingredients are depleted or even devoid of nutrients and essentially provide energy. They are not palatable by themselves apart from sugar (which however is not commonly eaten neat), and are not edible by themselves. Oils are used in the cooking of cereals (grains), vegetables and pulses (legumes), and meat, and are added to salads. Flours are made into pastry used as a covering for meat or vegetable dishes or as a basis for cakes. And so on.
This group also includes industrial ingredients usually not sold directly to consumers, such as processed remnants of meat or poultry, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, milk and soy proteins, gums, preservatives, and cosmetic and other additives. In modern food systems, the processing of such ingredients is mostly undertaken by specialist firms, for sale to food manufacturers.
Traditionally, food supplies, dietary patterns and personal diets have been mostly made up from group 1 foods and group 2 ingredients, prepared at home to make meals and dishes. There are however some group 3 ultra-processed products that have made up usually a small proportion of food systems and dietary patterns for hundreds or even (in the case of bread) thousands of years.

Group 3 foods (ultra-processed foods)

Group 3 processing, identified as ultra-processing, combines the already processed group 2 ingredients, such as oils, fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches, remnants of meat, with some (often only a small or even minuscule amount) of unprocessed or minimally processed group 1 foods. Sometimes no group 1 foods are included, and are instead imitated. Specific processes include baking, battering, frying, deep frying, curing, smoking, pickling, canning, use of preservatives and cosmetic additives, addition of synthetic vitamins and minerals, and sophisticated types of packaging.

The purpose of type 3 food processing is the creation of durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products.
Such ultra-processed products are formulated to improve shelf life, to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable and often to be habit-forming.
Typically they are designed to be consumed anywhere and that’s why they are also termed 'fast' or 'convenience' foods. Some such products are so degraded so as to termed 'junk' food.

Why ultra-processed foods can be problematic

From the health point of view, ultra-processed foods are problematic in two different ways.
Number one: their principal ingredients (oils, solid fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches) make them excessive in total fat, saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and short of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds, and of dietary fiber.
Taken together this increases the risk of various serious diseases.

Number two: their high energy density, hyper-palatability, their marketing in large and super-sizes, and aggressive and sophisticated advertising, all undermine and overwhelm the normal processes of sensible choice and appetite control, cause over-consumption, and therefore cause obesity, and also diseases many of which are associated with obesity.

Also, ultra-processed foods are consumed alone, in other words almost never together with unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
Why? Because they are designed to be ready-to-eat (or best ready-to-heat and then heat) and they are often consumed together with unprocessed and minimally processed foods.
Any accompanying fresh food, for instance lettuce within a burger, is usually little more than trimming or decoration, added to give an illusion of wholesomeness. For this reason it is right to isolate ultraprocessed products in dietary analyses and guidelines.
Now that you know how to distinguish different kinds of food you can surely change your diet accordingly preferring unprocessed food and taking out almost completely ultra-processed foods!
In the next couple of days we will analyze some of the most popular ultra-processed foods and see if there’s any way to completely take them out of our diets!

The Iron You


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