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What are Processed Foods, and Why I want You to Eat Them.

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I want you to eat processed foods.

That’s a controversial statement, but it shouldn’t be. I’m going to show you why.

whole vs processed vs ultra-processed foods?

I hate to break it to you, but most of the foods we eat are processed in some way. Milk is pasteurized. Almonds are shelled. Greens powders are dehydrated, blended with additives, and packaged. When someone puts all ‘processed food’ under one umbrella, it’s a big red flag.

Let’s do a brief intro to a couple of methods that are used to officially determine if foods are whole, processed, or ultra-processed.

The NOVA classification system is a widely-used tool for the categorization of foods into levels of processing. NOVA was developed in 2009 by the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

NOVA has four categories of processing: 

NOVA 1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods

NOVA 2: ‘culinary ingredients’ produced from NOVA 1 foods (ie butter)

NOVA 3: processed foods, such as home baked bread, canned vegetables, and cured meats, “which are obtained by combining NOVA1 and NOVA2 foods”

NOVA 4: ultra-processed foods “made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food.’’ These include packaged breads, infant formulas, all breakfast cereals, 

Most information about these categories can be found in the link in the paragraph above. 

NOVA graphic processed foods

I’ve referred to NOVA as a gold-standard quite a bit in my writing, but a recent study about NOVA’s functionality shows that its algorithm has loopholes that may categorize some foods incorrectly. This is because NOVA is based on descriptions, not nutritional quality. 

Here are 5 nutrition trends to ditch right now

There’s no master NOVA ‘list’ that has every food in the world. NOVA is open to interpretation by whoever is using it, which can lead to inconsistencies with deciding which foods go into what categories.

The issue with this is the miscategorization of foods. That can have some serious consequences, since some countries use NOVA to establish food guidelines, and epidemiologists often use NOVA to categorize foods in nutrition studies that look at relationships between the consumption of processed foods and health outcomes.

It can also be confusing to the layperson. 

We tend to think of ‘processed’ and ‘ultra-processed’ foods as unhealthy, containing large amounts of salt, sugar, refined grains, and additives. According to NOVA though, this isn’t always the case. 

For example, the study showed that unsweetened yogurt is technically a NOVA 3 food because of its processing and fermentation, but most people wouldn’t put it under a ‘processed food’ category. 

Tofu is another example – it’s considered by NOVA to be an ultra-processed food, but is a food that I, as a dietitian, would categorize as health-promoting. 

Popcorn cakes, according to the study, should be a NOVA 4 food (ultra-processed). However, because of the simple ingredient list, some evaluators put it into the NOVA 3 category.

Food Compass is another food rating system which was recently in the news for allegedly promoting Lucky Charms over steak, although this was proven to be grossly inaccurate (thanks, Joe Rogan). 

Food Compass uses a scale of 1 (least healthful) to 100 (most healthful) to score foods. 

These foods aren’t meant to be scored against each other, which is the mistake people made when they saw this graphic (great explanation of where these people went wrong, here).

food compass study graphic

Scores are determined by an algorithm that “incorporates a range of 54 potentially protective and harmful nutrients, ingredients, bioactives, additives, and processing attributes, grouped across 9 domains, and selected and weighted based on the latest evidence about their relative healthfulness.”

The mean Food Compass Score across the US is low – around 36. 

Reading nutrition research: a primer for the layperson

At the end of the day, every food score or categorization algorithm is not going to be perfect. Every single food in the world isn’t going to be scored accurately, which is why it’s important to use common sense when choosing the foods you eat.

Do ultra-processed foods affect health?

If we take ultra-processed food’s definition at face value, diets that are comprised mainly of these foods appear to have a negative impact on health. 

Although it’s hard to create a definite causal link between ultra-processed foods and health, we do know that people whose diets contain the highest volumes of these foods, often have poorer health.

Remember though, that health is a function of many factors – not just diet. People who consume a lot of ultra-processed foods may also have less access to healthcare, lower income levels, poor housing conditions, and lack other social determinants of health.

Read about how social determinants of health affect us.

Most of us would agree that many of the foods we consider to be ultra-processed have a combination of either fat and sugar, fat and sodium, or carbohydrates and sodium. Most of them are easy to eat – the opposite of something like raw vegetables, with their high-fiber content and lengthy chewing requirement.

A 2023 study on hyper-palatable food and energy consumption by Kevin Hall suggests that energy density, eating rate, and hyper-palatability of the food increases energy intake (aka calories) at meals. 

Put simply: if food is easy to eat, has a combination of salt, fat, sugar, and carbs, and has a high calorie content for its volume, we tend to eat more of it. When this occurs on a regular basis, it may be detrimental to health.

Why do I want you to eat processed foods?

You can find me on social media pretty much every day, arguing with some nutrition guru about their telling people that we should all be eating only unprocessed foods.

How ironic is it that the same influencers who rail against processed foods, turn around and sell you protein powders and meal replacements that are ultra-processed. 

I like to educate those people, not only because they’re causing major confusion about processed foods, but because I think their message stinks.

This muffuletta sandwich I ate in New Orleans was technically comprised of all ultra-processed foods. It was damn good. I would never want anyone to miss out on experiences like these, because they’re afraid to eat these sorts of foods.

While I’d never recommend a diet based solely on ultra-processed foods, I still think we should be including all foods in our diets – even ultra-processed ones.

First of all, as I said earlier, it would be pretty impossible to live without them. Impossible, and joyless. 

I don’t want to live in a world without Oreos. I buy Doritos. Not all the time, but yes – Zesty Cheese Doritos (available only in Canada) are sometimes in my pantry. When I’m out of homemade options for school lunches, I send my girls with frozen meals in their thermoses. And, on nights that I’m exhausted or that I just want something easy, I pop some frozen, pre-made falafel or a pizza into the oven.

So what?

Food isn’t clean or dirty. All food is ‘real food.’ If it’s edible, trust me: it’s ‘real.’ The guilt and shame that’s associated with consuming processed food seems like it’s at an all-time high, and that’s damaging and unnecessary. I don’t need some random on social media who knows nothing about me and nothing about nutrition, making me feel bad about my food choices. None of us need that.

When I’ve posted about frozen meals, deli meat, and other ultra-processed foods on social media, I’ve gotten comments telling me that these foods aren’t ‘healthy,’ and that as a dietitian, I should know better. That it just takes ‘discipline’ to not buy them. That they have ‘no nutrition’ in them.

These people are ignoring basic science – food has nutrients, no matter what. There’s a distinct lack of understanding or acknowledgement of the nuance and complexities that make up nutrition and food choices.

Processed, ultra-processed, and packaged foods are often inexpensive, accessible, and convenient. They taste good. 

It’s an elitist and out-of-touch notion that we can all live without these foods. It’s also an extreme privilege to be able to consider it, from both a lifestyle and a financial perspective.

I bring you a post from Dr. Mark Hyman, a repeat offender when it comes to these sorts of recommendations:

what are ultra processed foods hyman tweet

Grass-fed steak and wild blueberries are expensive. Also, why does it have to be one or the other? Why do ‘wellness gurus’ have to use fear to sell their ideas?

We can have a diet that has all of these foods, and still be in optimal health. The privilege of posts like these is nauseating.

Who out of us isn’t tired, or time-crunched? Who isn’t being hit in the knees with everything else life throws at us? Can we all afford to buy only whole foods? Sometimes, just putting a meal on the table, or packing the lunchboxes with food your kids will actually eat, is the priority.  

None of that is wrong. So how do we reconcile what we know about ultra-processed and hyper-palatable foods, with our needs, wants, and preferences?

I’m going to reiterate here (because I’m forseeing some of the emails I’m going to get about this post) that I’m not suggesting you eat a diet based on ultra-processed foods. I’m teaching you that these foods can be a part of our diets, and despite what some influencer says, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Instead of using a categorization system, use your common sense. Eat as many plants as you can – fresh, frozen, canned, dried. Get 20-25 grams of fiber a day. Tune out people who tell you to never eat processed or ultra-processed foods. Have some cake, and have a ton of plants.

This all starts with the understanding that these foods aren’t ‘toxic,’ or shameful. They aren’t ‘unclean.’ They’re just food, and they can be a part of a healthy diet.

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