In A Nutshell
When it comes to nutritional content and preparation, food comes in three different categories. Minimally processed foods—like fruits and veggies—have only minor things done to them such as washing, peeling, and removal of seeds or stems. Processed foods have undergone some process that changes their basic nutritional structure, like pasteurization. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, numerous processed foods are combined into ultra-processed foods, and that’s when things can get dangerous. Not all vitamins and minerals were created equally, especially when it comes to products that claim to be things like “fortified.” Studies now show that we get about 60 percent of our energy from ultra-processed foods, and almost 90 percent of that comes from added sugar.
The Whole Bushel
The 21st century is quickly becoming an era of buzz words when it comes to healthy eating and food, and the idea of “processed foods” is one that’s condemned by a number of people who are striving to eat better, eat healthy, and eat pure. But while processing foods in itself isn’t a bad thing—and almost no one can completely stay away from them in their strictest definition—ultra-processed foods could be a lot worse for us.
The basics of food processing are simple.
It’s defined as the way the raw products are made fit for human consumption. That includes things like freezing or canning, and that makes it pretty much impossible to claim a diet that’s completely free of processed foods.
Things that are considered unprocessed or minimally processed are items like fruit and milk or salads made from raw ingredients at home. Even these, though, are processed in some ways – in the strictest sense, fruit that’s peeled or sliced, or has seeds removed, is considered processed.
(Of course, in some cases, processed foods are healthier than their non-processed counterparts. Milk and meats, for example, are processed to get rid of potentially dangerous toxins and pathogens.)
The problems start happening when foods get overly processed. Processed foods are usually ingredients that have undergone some kind of procedure that changes their basic structure. Included in this group are things like oats and grains that have been crushed or milled, or any other raw materials that are treated with chemicals that change their nutritional makeup.
When we step up to ultra-processed foods, the problems really start. These things—like hot dogs, sausages, cereal bars, and TV dinners—are made up of a series of components from the “processed foods” group.
They’re characterized by their convenience, pre-made and able to be eaten anywhere with a minimal amount of work. They might be smoked, fried, baked, mixed, or cured. In these processes, many foods lose most of their vitamins and minerals but retain a lot of their calories.
Ultra-processed foods can save time, lengthen shelf life, and reduce waste. But they’ve recently been under fire for the fact that they might be shortening our life spans. According to the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, this third type of food is problematic and has been on the rise since the 1980s.
The research condemns many foods that proudly boast they’ve been fortified or supplemented, claim that they’re a light version of a product, or carry any other claims that they’ve somehow been manufactured to be a superfood. It also takes aim at nutritionists who claim the consumption of fortified foods is the same as having raw, minimally processed foods that, at a glance, seem to contain the same vitamins and minerals.
The study also looked at how much of the food we eat is considered ultra-processed, and the results are pretty unsettling. With 9,317 study participants, they determined that 57.9 percent of our energy intake each day comes from ultra-processed foods, and that 89.7 percent of that came from sugars that had been added to the foods.
Show Me The Proof
Teaching the Food System: Food Processing
BMJ Open: Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet
The Atlantic: How Ultra-Processed Foods Are Killing Us
National Health Service: Eating processed foods