Why All Processed Foods Do Not Need to be Avoided
We often hear that processed foods are “bad” for us and fresh is best but like many other topics in the nutrition world, it is not so black and white. What are processed foods and which ones should we be avoiding in our diet? Luckily, there is a classification system developed in Brazil that helps me to answer this question. This system is called NOVA and it is used in the United States, Canada as well as other countries in the world. NOVA separates food processing into different levels which are as follows:
- Unprocessed or Natural
- Obtained directly from the plant or animal and do not undergo any alteration
- Minimally Processed
- These foods have been altered in ways that do not introduce any new substance (i.e. sugar, fat, or salt). Instead, it often involves the removal of parts of the food through cleaning, fermenting, pasteurization, freezing, etc. Examples include nuts, frozen vegetables, grains, legumes, tea, and coffee.
- Processed Culinary Ingredients
- Products taken from natural foods through processes such as pressing, grinding, and refining. They are used for cooking and as part of a balanced diet when used in moderation. Examples include butter, honey, maple syrup, oil, and sugar from cane or beets.
- Natural or minimally processed foods made with salt, sugar and/or fat to preserve them or make them tastier. These foods usually only have a few ingredients. Examples include canned fish, canned vegetables, freshly made bread, and salted nuts and seeds.
- Ultra-processed foods
- These foods are formulations of industrial ingredients and other substances derived from food and additives. Mostly contain little if any intact food. The purpose of these foods is to create products that are convenient, taste good, and make a profit. The packaging is usually attractive and heavily marketed. Examples include soft drinks, chips, candies, pre-prepared frozen dinners, ice cream, cookies, packaged soups, flavoured yogurts, sweetened breakfast cereals, and cereal bars.
The main issue with processed foods lies with ultra processed foods. These foods have been shown to increase caloric intake, chronic disease risk, cancer risk as well as negatively affecting your gut microbiome. With all of that being said, should you be planning to ‘detox’ your diet of ultra processed foods? Not necessarily. One serving of French fries is not going to make or break things. It’s what we do consistently and over the long run that make impact our health. Also, cutting back on ultra processed foods may mean different things to different people. You may choose to limit it to a couple of servings a week while other people may set the goal of preparing a meal without any ultra-processed foods. Look at where you are and where you think you can realistically go. For me… I don’t plan to give up my ice cream anytime soon. If you see any area in your diet where you can move away from an ultra-processed choice, go for it! If one of those ultra-processed foods in that list is something you absolutely love, you don’t have to give it up! A little bit now and then is not going to hurt you. It’s all about progress, not perfection! We want to make realistic and sustainable changes so we can work towards healthy changes while still being happy about what we are eating.
Want some practical tips on how to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods? Here are a few ideas:
- Consider the source of the food you are eating. Would you be able to go out in nature and get this food? The further the food is from its natural state, the likely more processed it is.
- Don’t be swayed by advertising. Have you ever noticed that fruits and vegetables are not heavily advertised yet we all know they are so healthy for us! Be mindful that when you see advertisements and attractive packaging, the marketers may not have your health in their best interest.
- Cook more often. The more we cook, the more we have control over what we put in our bodies and the less likely we will eat ultra-processed foods since ultra-processed foods don’t usually require much cooking.
- Look at the ingredients. If you see a product with a loooong list of ingredients, chances are it is a product of ultra-processing so be weary.
- Don’t be hard on yourself! Make changes one step at a time. If you are kind to yourself and patient, you will get to where you want to be. If you need help setting goals around your eating, that’s what I am here for!
Andrea Kennedy RD CDE