Processed foods are a hot topic these days. The terms processed food and ultra processed foods are used frequently to describe foods that are "terrible for you". But where exactly do these terms come from? And are processed foods really that bad?
In 2009, Brazilian researchers developed the NOVA Food Classification System to classify foods into 4 groups, based on the processing and the added ingredients. The main purpose of this classification system was to be used for research. Having clearly defined groups to classify food into sets parameters for nutrition research. However, terms from this classification system, such as ultra-processed foods, have gained a lot of negative connotations.
So how how does this classification system work? There are 4 groups, broken down by added ingredients and processing techniques. Examples of foods that fall into each category can be seen below:
G1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods
G2: processed culinary ingredients
raw or frozen fruits and vegetables
oats, grits, polenta
beans, lentils, raw nuts and seeds
fresh or frozen meat, poultry and fish
milk and unsweetened yogurt
oil, butter, lard
sugar, honey, maple syrup
G3: processed foods
G4: ultra-processed foods
canned or pickled fruits and vegetables
tomate paste or concentrate
beef jerky, bacon, cured or dried meat
roasted/salted/flavored nuts and seeds
fresh, unpackaged bread
prepared, ready-to-eat meals
sweetened juice, soda
breakfast cereal, granola, protein bars
chicken nuggets, fish sticks
canned soups and sauces
ice cream, cakes, pastries
Faults in the System
There is a lot of nuance to these classifications, with specific ingredients playing a big role in what differentiates G3 and G4 products. With these specifications, many nutrient dense foods fall into the ultra-processed foods category simply because of ingredients that may be used for preservation. Many processing techniques and preservation practices that are used today are the reason we can trust that the food we eat is safe.
Categorizing foods based on specific ingredients also leads to some interesting groupings. For example, Tropicana orange juice and Sunkist orange soda both fall into the same category of ultra-processed foods. However, orange juice is much more nutrient dense than an orange soda. Just because a food can be labelled processed does not mean that it is inherently unhealthy.
So many of the foods that fall into the "ultra-processed foods" category are nutrient dense, convenient foods that are an important part of our every day diet. This is not to say that every food in that category is nutritious. And sure, some processed foods are not great to eat all the time. But that does not mean that ALL processed foods need to be avoided.
Thats right, we're talking about the benefits of processed foods. We already touched on the importances of food processing and preservation in food safety. Techniques such as canning, fermenting and pasteurizing not only allow us to have food that lasts longer, but it also ensures that we won't get sick from something as simple as a glass of milk. Processing and preserving foods also opens up food access and increases food security. It allows people to store nutrient dense foods, such as canned vegetables, longer and always have them on hand.
The convenience and versatility of processed foods cannot be ignored either. They allow us to stay fueled during busy days, when time is limited. Whether it's keeping trail mix in the car for "just in case" situations, or bringing a protein bar to class to stay fueled after a workout, nutrient packed processed foods allow us to maintain healthy and consistent eating habits.
The takeaway: processed foods can be nutritious and part of a healthy diet
This is not to say that processed and ultra-processed foods should be the bulk of our diet. Whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein should always be the focus. However, packaged snack foods, convenient loaves of bread, tasty fruit juice and time saving protein bars can all be included in a healthy lifestyle. It's time to reduce the stigma around processed foods and embrace the place they have in our diet.