last updated April 21, 2021

What are processed foods (and how might they affect your health)?

by Rob Arthur

If you make no other changes to your diet, minimizing the amount of processed foods you eat can be a major step toward looking, feeling, and performing your best.

What are processed foods?

Determining what foods are or are not “processed” can be tricky.

One popular system for identifying processed foods is the NOVA classification system, which classifies foods into four groups according to their degree of processing (1).

On the most processed end of the spectrum are Group 4 foods.

Group 4 foods are “ultra-processed foods”, which are “formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives” and often possess the following properties:

  • energy-dense
  • made to have a long shelf-life
  • hyper-palatable and attractive
  • able to be consumed anywhere, any time
  • high in unhealthy fats, refined starches, and added sugars and salt
  • low in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals

Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, packaged snacks and sweets like candy, reconstituted meat products like chicken nuggets, and pre-prepared frozen dishes.

How might processed foods affect your health?

Observational studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption to increased risk of cancer, mortality, depressive symptoms, inflammatory bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease, frailty, dyslipidemia, overweight/obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes (2).

Now, observational studies aren’t considered to be as strong of evidence as interventional studies like randomized controlled trials (3).

However, there are also interventional studies that support the observations mentioned above.

For example, in a 2019 trial, participants freely eating ultra-processed foods consumed 500 calories more per day than those freely eating unprocessed foods with the same nutrient profile (4).

A 2018 trial showed that consistently eating minimally processed food was a bigger factor in participants’ success improving health and body composition than whether they limited carbs or fat, even when predisposed to favor one or the other (5).

So, if you’re looking to make changes to your diet to move you closer toward your health and fitness goals, consider transitioning away from processed foods and toward unprocessed foods.

What are unprocessed foods?

As you might have guessed, on the other end of the NOVA classification spectrum from Group 4 foods are Group 1 foods.

Group 1 foods are “unprocessed or minimally processed foods”, including edible parts of plants or animals that have only been processed for preservation, storage, or safety and edibility. 

Examples of unprocessed foods include meat, eggs, water, milk, fruits, and vegetables without any additives or extra ingredients.

Of course, there are foods that don’t fall into Group 1 or Group 4.

Group 2 foods are “processed culinary ingredients”, which are “derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying.”

Examples are oils, butter, sugar and salt.

Group 3 foods are “processed foods”, which “are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods.”

Examples are bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and fresh bread.

Don’t get all caught up in which group every single thing you eat might belong to.

All foods lie on a spectrum, and there may be times when it’s tough to tell where a food might lie so far as its degree of processing.

There are ways other than the NOVA classification system you might use to steer your eating decisions.

How to tell the difference between processed foods and unprocessed foods

We’ve discussed the NOVA classification system, but you might find it cumbersome to evaluate everything you eat according to those four groups.

Instead, you might find it helpful to keep a few rules-of-thumb in mind when deciding what to eat.

Here are few simple guidelines that might help you prioritize unprocessed foods over processed foods:

  • foods without nutrition labels
  • foods without ingredients lists
  • foods with five or fewer ingredients
  • foods with ingredients you can pronounce
  • foods found around the perimeter of the store

None of these guidelines are laws of nature or universal truths.

There are exceptions to each and every one.

They’re not intended to be perfect, though.

They’re intended to get you started, build momentum, and serve as a starting point to finding what works for you.

You’ll have to determine which eating habits align with your personal needs, preferences and goals.

You might also consider if some foods you consider to be “healthy” are actually more on the “processed” end of the spectrum and aren’t serving you like you thought.

For example, a paleo, keto, vegan, gluten-free cookie might sound like a good option.

However, if it’s promoting eating beyond satiety, weight gain, or other adverse health effects, you might want to dial them back.

That said, if you’re eating such foods as occasional indulgences or less problematic treats while still making progress toward your goals, they may be just fine.

There is no “one size fits all” approach.

Final words

Remember that there’s no such thing as “perfect”, so don’t set that as your standard.

Aim instead for “better”, according to what that means to you.

Understand, too, that there are no “good” or “bad” foods.

Sure, what you eat will affect your physical health, but food is not a moral issue.

Your value as a person is not defined by what you eat.

No single meal or day will ruin your efforts.

It’s what you do consistently that matters.

Take things one day, one meal, one bite at a time.

Take a look at your eating habits.

Identify potential areas for improvement.

Make a change.

See how it affects your progress.

Adjust as necessary.

Rinse and repeat.

Simple swaps here and there can add up.

Do what you can.

That’s all you can do.

You’ve got this.


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