Are All Processed Foods Bad?
We’re told that we should cut down on eating ‘processed’ foods for our health.
But which foods are a problem and which aren’t? Is everything in a pack bad? Let’s take a look..
Table of Contents
What exactly are “Processed” foods?
Put very simply, a processed food is one that’s been altered from its original form. But that’s pretty vague as a definition to be honest, as it’s quite obvious that some products are ‘processed’ significantly more than others..
A packet of skinless and boneless chicken thighs has been processed to a certain degree… but clearly it’s a very different level of processing to a pack of chicken nuggets.
Thankfully we can break things down to help us cut through this a bit more.
We can classify food by how much processing it has been through..
- Minimally Processed Foods, like this pork chop
- Medium Processed Foods – that have been through more food processing like these high quality pork sausages.
- Ultra-Processed Foods – These have been through more extreme mechanical and chemical processes. Like this smiley face ham.
Categories Of Processing…
Minimally or Unprocessed Foods
‘Minimally processed food’ is where the food tends to look like original ingredients:
This packet of carrot batons has been peeled, cleaned and chopped.
And, this fish fillet has been cut and cleaned, ready for cooking.
There’s little change from the original ingredient and most nutritional goodness is maintained.
Minimal processing techniques include:
Refrigeration and freezing – pretty straightforward really. This process is about preserving the ingredients, keeping foods fresh and retaining nutrients.
Pasteurisation – liquids like milk or juice are heated to high temperatures to destroy microorganisms.
Fermentation – this is where natural sugars in foods are broken down by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms under anaerobic conditions. This changes the flavour and texture of the ingredients, and preserves nutrients. Ideal for storing foods over long winters in the past.
Medium ‘Processed’ Food
Preserving with food additives:
Substances are added to foods to keep them fresh or to enhance their colour, flavour or texture. Examples include: – food colourings, like tartrazine or cochineal; flavour enhancers, like monosodium glutamate, that’s commonly added to chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats.
Some additives have been used for centuries, like salt, vinegar, smoke and sugar. They were used to create longer lasting foods such as bacon, smoked meats and wines.
High pressure processing:
High pressure processing – is where foods are processed under very high pressure to eliminate microorganisms and enzymes.used for guacamole, fruit juice and smoothies.
Milling and Grinding:
Canning and blanching:
Blanching is where foods, like tomatoes or peas, are scaled in boiling water or steam for a short time, usually before canning or freezing. This is to enhance flavour and extend food life.
So in summary.. Foods in this ‘medium processed’ category have been altered. They have some advantages as they are convenient and help you build nutritious meals. But the processing of foods can cause loss of nutrients. Particularly water soluble vitamins. There are also concerns around the introduction of chemical additives.
Ultra Processed Foods
Think of the foods in this category as modern food fakery.. They no longer resemble the original ingredient and have lost their natural nutrition profile.
One food classification system, the ‘NOVA’ system, defines ultra-processed foods as:
“industrial formulations generated through compounds extracted, derived or synthesised from food or food substrates. Containing five or more ingredients and artificial additives, with no whole food components”.
Now that’s quite a mouthful. What this means is that the food products have been highly manipulated, through substantial industrial processing. They are made up of 5 or more ingredients. Often containing many added chemical ingredients, like preservatives, sweeteners and colour enhancers.
They’re made using mechanical industrial production processes that can’t be undertaken at home. And the original ingredients are no longer intact…
It isn’t sounding good so far!
- High in refined carbohydrates,
- poor quality fats (from refined inflammatory seed oils) and
- low in natural nutrients.
The foods in this category have been altered in a detrimental way.
The ingredients are put through a number of complex industrial processing techniques, like: extrusion; high pressure heating; emulsifying, moulding and many many more.
These industrial techniques allow food products to be made to meet specific recipe formulations, at a vast scale.
If you don’t know precisely what these processes are, that’s kind of the point – they are not normal food techniques, and certainly not what you would see in a home kitchen..
Examples of Ultra Processed Foods.
Yes, crisps or chips; chocolate bars; Ice-cream; pizza and soft drinks, ready meals, instant noodles, are all examples of Ultra Processed Foods.
But also many of our every day family staples are too..
Your supermarket sliced is made from complex ingredients and processes not used in kitchens. Including emulsifiers, preservatives and colourings – so it is an ultra-processed food.
But, bread made from simple ingredients and techniques such as flour, water, salt and yeast is typically considered medium processed.
How do they achieve the final breakfast cereal shapes, textures, colours and coatings that have become all so familiar?
Ingredients are put through incredibly complicated processing techniques on a vast scale:
Crushing grains, milling, stewing in a large pressure cooker vat with sugar (or syrups). Flavourings, colourings, sweeteners are mixed into the pulpy mass, before drying on conveyor belts. Next they’re shaped, shredded, flaked, puffed or toasted to produce the desired product shape and texture. Before being spray coated or mixed in with additional ingredients, like chocolate, honey, sugar frosting, malt, dried fruits, marshmallows, nuts, food colouring and preservatives. Finally they’re packed using automated machinery, at a rate of about 40 boxes per minute. These cereal ‘foods’ are a highly manipulated product. Definitely not something that we could replicate in our own kitchen..
A fake food for sure.
Why process foods?
Humans have been processing foods for millenia. This was essential, to survive food shortages, to colonise and develop civilisations in very different habitats.
Our ancestors would roast, grind and soak foods to make them edible, and preserve foods by smoking, sun drying or with salt..
There are some major advantages of processing foods that we really want to keep.
We process foods to make them more convenient; to preserve freshness; extend their life; and to make food more appetising. All good reasons.
Benefits for manufacturers.
What are the benefits to the food industry? – I can summarise this one pretty quickly – it’s to maximise profit.
Food products made from lower cost ingredients at scale are cheaper to manufacture and generate larger profits.
Producing food in factories with generic ingredients and processes also helps to achieve recipe consistency.
And helps extend the product’s shelf life. Longer lasting, easier to transport and store – again means a boost to profits.
Processing has literally changed our whole relationship with food and for the better in many ways.
Contrary to popular belief, modern processed food products took off really slowly when first introduced in the 1950’s. They were very expensive and needed a huge marketing boost to trigger popularity. Women were specifically targeted as these foods offered them freedom from the kitchen… freedom to pursue work and education.
Since then as we know there has been a proliferation in the processing of foods. And they do offer many benefits to our busy lives; from convenience to lower costs and reducing food waste. So of course they are clearly not all bad…..
However, we just need to be aware that there is a huge difference between say a jar of Kimchi and multicoloured sugar laden packs of cereal which can’t really be classed as real food.
- UPF Cancer risk
- Sugars, Sodium and unhealthy refined Fats.
- Strips foods
- Coca cola tactics Reference 1, Reference 2
- Nova classification system (not the only classification system used): The international ‘NOVA’ food classification system define ultra-processed foods
- 10% increase in consumption linked to cancer