Processed foods are likely to play a role in our diets whether we like it or not. Unless we are on a raw food diet (wouldn’t recommend it) or are trying to eat like our ancestors did millions of years ago, most of us will be consuming some form of processed foods daily. And this really isn’t a problem. As with everything in nutrition, it is moderation – how often we consume processed foods and what the rest of our diet looks like – that’s important.
Last week I wrote about the pros of eating processed foods in “Processed Foods: The pros and cons – Part 1” so if you haven’t read that yet, it’s a good place to start (it’s always good to start with the positives ;-)).
Cooking from scratch
When it comes to processed foods, people mainly compare these foods with the alternative – preparing foods at home from scratch for the whole family. There certainly are lots of benefits to eating this way. For example you have complete control as to what goes into the recipes, you can flavour foods to your own tastes, you can add less or no amounts of salt, fat and sugar, you can control for food allergies or special diets and you’re more likely to use “group one” ingredients (defined below) that contain fibre as well as plenty of vitamin and minerals.
If you’re able to cook this way and eat most of your meals from scratch, then that is certainly likely to be beneficial to your health, and result in a diet high in fibre, micronutrients and lower in sugar, saturated fat and salt. However for many of us living busy lives in the 21st Century, it’s not always possible or practical for us to be cooking from scratch for every single meal.
Defining processed foods
Now it’s also important to remember that frozen vegetables, tinned tomatoes and sliced bread all count as ‘processed food’ and these aren’t necessarily foods that we all need to be limiting. Therefore, it seems realistic to try and break down what we mean by PROCESSED somewhat, to include different levels of processing. Luckily a group of researchers have produced something called the NOVA scale that helps to do just this.
They split processed foods up into:
Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients
Group 3. Processed foods
Group 4. Ultra-processed foods
Group 1 are simply edible parts of plants and animals or those that are altered by minimal processes, for example to remove inedible parts or to preserve and store foods naturally. These include freezing, drying, boiling and packaging foods. A lot of this would happen in a domestic environment.
Group 3 processed foods include fruits and vegetables or fish bottled or tinned in salt or syrup as well as cheeses and breads. Basically anything that is a group one food that has Group 2 ingredients – salt, sugar and oil added.
Lastly, group 4 are ultra-processed, which are not simply modified foods but are foods that have undergone multiple processes which result in little, if any, intact group 1 foods being present. These include soft drinks, sweets, packaged snacks, ready meals and usually non-culinary or non-domestic ingredients are used to create them including additives and ingredients such as hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soya protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Ultimately ultra processed foods are generally considered as foods that involve additional energy, saturated fat, sugar and salt as well as additives.
On top of this, the NOVA scale suggests that ultra processed foods tend to be foods that are a poor source of fibre – something that many of us don’t consume enough of – and micronutrients.
Additives: A side note
Actually it’s important to note that although additives get a bad reputation. Any that are used in foods in the UK all pass safety checks and, if necessary, have strict limits on how much can be used in food products throughout the EU.
High intakes of processed foods
If you’re consuming a diet which relies heavily on processed and ultra processed foods, you may be at risk of having high intakes of ingredients such as salt, saturated fat and sugar. These are ingredients that the UK Government recommends we reduce in our diet, as, if eaten in excess, they can have negative effects on our health including our dental health, our weight and our heart.
If your diet is high in processed and ultra processed foods, you’re also unlikely to have much control over how much sugar, fat, salt and fibre you’re consuming – which may lead to an overall “unhealthy” and unbalanced diet.
The palatability factor
Ultimately, ultra processed foods include sugar, fat and salt because these ingredients help to make food ultra palatable which is great…to a certain extent. If you’re consuming too many foods and calories because food is super palatable, this can be a problem and is what often leads people to associate certain foods with addictions (which is controversial and a whole new blog post in itself – it’s not officially proven that people can be addicted to foods and research is very mixed).
One study which reviewed the use of the NOVA scale suggested that there has been a large growth in the consumption of ultra processed food and that concern comes when these foods displace unprocessed/minimally processed and freshly prepared dishes in the diet. This displacement in the diet is what some evidence shows is increasing rates obesity and potentially other diet-related diseases (mainly, as I’ve mentioned through high intakes of calories, sugar, fat and salt and low intakes of fibre and micronutrients).
Processed foods are not all evil and we certainly don’t need to completely avoid them in our diet – that wouldn’t be practical and might actually reduce the variety of foods that you might otherwise be exposed to. However, high intakes of processed and especially ultra processed foods can lead to people over consuming food and calories as well as overeating ingredients that we know we should be limiting such as sugar, fat and salt. Larger intakes of processed foods may also lead to people having lower overall intakes of important nutrients such as iron, calcium and B vitamins as well as further reducing fibre intakes.
As with everything in nutrition, the realistic, sensible message turns out trumps. Eating a well balanced diet and consuming foods high in fat, sugar and salt in moderation. If you’re not sure what a “healthy balanced diet” consists of, check out my blog post here.
On top of this, here are a few of my top tips to choosing processed foods.
Charlotte’s Top Tips:
- Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear when it comes to processed foods – the media tends to like scaremongering, but often it’s not that black and white
- Remember that some processed foods are essential and can be beneficial for our health e.g. tinned fish, fortified milks, frozen vegetables
- Try to put ‘processed foods’ into context and look at HOW OFTEN you’re consuming them throughout the week
- By all means cook from scratch whenever possible but remember that using tinned beans, frozen vegetables and pre-packaged rice is NOT a problem
- When choosing snacks or processed foods, try to think about the nutrients that these foods will offer and make your choice with that in mind
- Check labels on foods for levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt – especially per 100g which allows you to compare between products
- Check labels on food you choose and take note of fibre contents. In the UK we only consume around 19g of fibre a day and the recommendation is 30g
- Include plenty of fruits and vegetables including fresh and frozen every day
- Remember that most foods are processed to some degree but it’s the ultra processed foods that we should eat a little less of
- Don’t ever feel like you can’t eat foods or feel guilty about the food you eat – a positive relationship with food is the best way to learn how to have a healthy diet