The Difference Between Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods: A Nutritionist’s Guide
In today’s fast-paced world, convenience has become a priority for many, especially when it comes to food choices.
Processed and ultra-processed foods have gained popularity due to their ease of preparation, long shelf life and often palatable taste! However, not all processed foods are created equal, and understanding the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods can help you make informed and health-conscious dietary decisions.
As a nutritionist, I want to shed light on this topic to help you make healthier choices when it comes to eating on the go…
DEFINING PROCESSED FOODS
Processed foods refer to any food item that undergoes deliberate changes before being sold to consumers. These changes can include washing, cutting, cooking, canning, freezing, or adding preservatives for increased shelf life.
Common examples of minimally processed foods include pre-chopped vegetables, canned fruits, chickpeas in a can and even pasteurised milk.
It’s important to note that processed foods aren’t always bad for us; in fact, some processing methods can actually HELP to retain nutrients in the food, for example:
- Chopped tomatoes
- Frozen veggies
- Greek yoghurt
- Nut butter
- Canned beans and pulses
The key is to be aware of the level of processing and the ingredients used during the process – this is why I tell my clients to always check the label before purchasing. Some key ingredients to look out for include…
- Added sugars- look for words like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and other sweeteners in the ingredients list.
- Artificial Sweeteners- Ingredients like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose
- Artificial Preservatives- Opt for products with natural preservatives or no preservatives when possible.
UNDERSTANDING ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS
On the other end of the spectrum, we have ultra-processed foods. Unlike minimally processed foods that may have undergone simple procedures, ultra-processed foods undergo extensive processing and are often left far from their original natural state. These products typically contain a long list of additives, artificial flavours, colours, sweeteners, and preservatives.
Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable and convenient, making them easily consumable and highly addictive. Common examples include sugary breakfast cereals, microwave ready meals, fizzy drinks, shop bought cookies and other packaged snacks. Even often thought of “healthy” foods can fall into this category, including…
- Highly processed protein bars
- High protein artificially sweetened fruit yoghurts
- Gluten free cookies and biscuits
- Commercial trail mix made from sugary dried fruits and salted nuts
- Veggie crisps
THE HEALTH IMPACT
The consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods has been linked to various health issues:
- Nutritional Deficiencies: Ultra-processed foods are often stripped of essential nutrients during processing, often leading to an unbalanced diet that lacks vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
- Excessive sugar, salt, and poor quality fats: These foods tend to be high in added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats, potentially contributing to weight gain, unbalanced blood sugar levels and gut disturbances.
- Digestive Issues: Processed foods may contain artificial additives and preservatives that can upset the gut’s natural balance, which may lead to digestive concerns and dysbiosis.
- Long-term Health Risks: Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with an increased risk of obesity, IBS, type 2 diabetes, and other disorders. Studies have shown that a high intake of ultra-processed food can negatively impact gut health and results demonstrated an increased risk of IBD. (3)
MAKING HEALTHIER CHOICES
As a nutritionist, my primary goal is to promote a balanced and wholesome diet. Here are some tips to help you make healthier choices:
- Prioritise Whole Foods: Opt for whole, minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and nuts and seeds. Aim to eat food in its whole natural state as much as possible.
- Read Labels: When purchasing processed foods, read the labels carefully. Avoid products with long lists of ingredients including artificial sweeteners, additives, excessive added sugars, and unhealthy fats. Look out for words such as “Natural”, “organic”, “low-fat”, “no added sugar” or “low calorie” as these do not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural or nutritious!
- Cook at Home as much as possible: Preparing meals at home allows you to control the ingredients and cooking methods, reducing your reliance on ultra-processed foods and unnessercery added ingredients.
- Snack Smart: Choose healthier snack options like nuts, seeds, greek yoghurt, or homemade popcorn instead of reaching for pre-packaged snacks.
- Be Mindful of Portion Sizes: If you do indulge in processed treats, be mindful of portion sizes and frequency of consumption.
SO SHOULD WE EAT ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS?
Well, understanding the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods empowers us to make better food choices for our overall well-being. The key is to minimise risk, and whilst occasionally eating these foods will be unlikely to impact your health, long-term consumption of these foods may.
While it’s impractical to completely avoid all processed foods, focusing on whole and minimally processed options while limiting ultra-processed foods can significantly improve our health and quality of life.
As a nutritionist, my advice is to embrace a balanced diet that includes nourishing, wholesome foods to support your body’s optimal function and long-term vitality.