Processed food is any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way. Any food that is cooked, seasoned, preserved, or combined with other foods has technically been processed. Processed food (PF) has been part of the human diet since ancient times. Food processing started around 2 million years ago by our ancestors, early hominoids, who discovered cooking, the most original processing technique. Hence, not all forms of food processing are unhealthy for us.
Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are a specific category of processed foods that are defined as food products that typically contain five or more ingredients, including additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, and artificial flavors or colors.
The NOVA classification, originally developed in Brazil, is the most commonly used system to define the degree of food processing. This classification states that ultra-processed foods are mainly “ready-to-eat industrially formulated products that are made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little presence of unprocessed or minimally processed food.” These foods are often highly processed, with many of their original nutrients removed, and may be high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium.
Research indicates that the additives in ultra-processed foods make them easier to chew and swallow. These foods also have low satiety levels which lead to increased energy intake and weight gain relative to whole foods. Besides this, a whole lot of health issues like heart disease, insulin resistance, dementia and cancer can be caused by these foods making them our most dangerous enemy!
However, not all ultra-processed foods have harmful side-effects. For example, scientifically and ethically developed sports nutrition products such as protein powders, hydrolysed whey, casein, soy isolate, and protein bars are designed to improve health by making up for the missing essential nutrients in our diets, while also limiting the number of additional calories consumed, and sometimes even aiding in weight loss. Hence, it is important to read the fine print and understand the nutritional value of food, whether processed or ultra-processed, before deciding whether to consume it.
Most ultra processed foods are touted as convenient options when hungry because they are readily available, can be consumed on the go, are economical and, most importantly, taste great. This makes them addictive, and so it’s important to learn ways to replace them with “real” food that is affordable, easy to access, tastes good but has healthy impacts.