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What does “processed food” even mean?

by Okanagan Nutrition

Across the board, the one piece of advice that I think all dietitians can agree with is, avoid ultra-processed foods as much as possible.

We often give this piece of advice without offering further explanation as to what sorts of foods are considered “processed”. This leaves people wondering, is my cereal OK? What about my almond milk? Aren’t most foods processed in some way?! Can I eat ANYTHING?!

As of 2004, almost half of all of food consumed by Canadians was ultra-processed … yikes!

So, let’s break down what the term processed actually means and just what we mean when we say avoid ultra-processed foods.

Minimally processed or unprocessed, whole foods

These are the foods we want you to eat more of!

Minimally processed and whole foods remain in their their most natural state.

An example of a completely unprocessed food would be you going out to your garden, plucking a carrot out of the ground and eating it.

Fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen), whole grains, beans, lentils nuts and seeds as well spices that you buy from the store are minimally processed!

These foods have been mildly processed in some way, in the way of trimming, cleaning, grinding, refrigerating or freezing, packaging or pasteurization for example. They do not have any additional substances like salt, sugar, oil or other fats added to them.

Examples of minimally processed animal foods would be pasteurized dairy milk, eggs, seafood and meats.

Pro Tip: Whole or minimally processed foods aren’t likely to come in a package and if they do, they should contain only whole food ingredients -whole grain brown rice, corn, broccoli, blueberries and strawberries for example.

Processed Foods

Processed foods have been altered from their natural state in some way, but not to the extent that we would consider them not nutritious.

Pro Tip: Processed foods generally have 2 to 3 added ingredients such as oils, sugar, herbs or fortified vitamin and minerals.

Some examples of processed foods include:

  • Tofu, tempeh, natto
  • Store bough dairy alternatives
  • Simple breads and crackers
  • Canned vegetables or fruits (not in simple syrup)
  • Canned legumes
  • Salted nuts or seeds.
  • Sauerkraut or kimchi
  • Whole grain or pseudo-grain flours

Processed foods like the above still fit into a well-balanced, whole foods diet!

Ultra-Processed Foods

These are the foods that we want you to limit in your diet as much as possible.

Ultra-processed foods go through MANY processing steps before they are ready to eat or drink.

They typically offer very little nutritional value to you. These foods are generally high in sugar, salt, added fats, preservatives and low in fiber, antioxidants as well as vitamins or minerals (unless these have been added back into the final product).

Pro Tip: Ultra-processed foods tend to have five or more ingredients, including various processed sugars, salt, fats, stabilizers, preservatives and anti-oxidants.
If you read a food products ingredients list and it contains multiple words that are unrecognizable to you, it is likely a heavily processed food.

Some examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Carbonated beverages (pop)
  • Candies
  • Mass-produced packaged breads
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Energy bars and energy drinks
  • Margarine’s and spreads
  • Cookies, cakes, store-bought prepackaged baking kits
  • Fruits packaged with syrups
  • Hot dogs, burgers, chicken nuggets, sausages, deli meats
  • Most ready to eat meals
  • Meat substitutes

Why do we want you to eat/drink less of these foods?

We know that if your diet is predominately made up of these ultra-processed foods, it increases your risk of developing the following:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
How do we combat these things?

Transition to eating more whole, minimally processed and plant-based foods.

Are there positives to food processing?

Of course! But we are not talking about ultra-processed foods here.

Food processing can make foods more nutrient dense. For example, we have food processing to thank for why store bought milk alternatives and tofu products are fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and B12!

Freezing and canning whole foods like beans, lentils or fruits and vegetables, makes them more widely available and are often more cost-effective than their fresh counterparts.

Pre-cut vegetables or fruits like spinach, carrots, broccoli or cauliflower slaws are convenient and easy to use for people as well.

Bottom line

Am I saying that you can never have ultra-processed foods again?

No, these foods just shouldn’t make up a majority of your diet.

One of the easiest ways to eat more minimally processed, whole foods is to cook at home!

Choose one or two new recipes a week to try, make enough so you have left-overs for a quick and easy meal the next day.

Don’t know where to start?

Click here to download my free 5 Day Whole Food, Plant-Based Meal Plan!
Here are some of my absolute favourite foodies to get some recipe inspiration from:
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