Gut-Wrenching Facts about Processed Foods

Most nutrition experts agree on a fundamental belief made famous by author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” Pollan’s writings reflect that “food” refers to real, unprocessed food, and that what Americans buy in supermarkets and consume is, for the most part, far from real.

But to what extent is food processed? Most food is processed to some degree, but what is most problematic is ultra-processed food that, in many instances, has replaced the real food in our diets. Ultra-processed foods are consumed mostly in wealthy countries and make up more than half of the dietary calories consumed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The processes and ingredients used in ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly-profitable products by using low-cost ingredients and providing an extended shelf life, making their convenience, hyper-palpability, branding and ownership by transnational corporations, and aggressive marketing (vivid packaging, health claims, deals with retailers to provide shelf visibility and advertising campaigns geared toward children) extremely attractive. The health consequences of ultra-processed foods are numerous, due to decreased vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber and increased calories, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, resulting in problems ranging from gut issues and cardiometabolic diseases (obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease) to depression and cancer.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Michael Pollan

We can educate ourselves about real and processed foods by using the ​NOVA food classification system​, the most respected and widely-used categorization of food alterations.

Food CategoryDescription
Unprocessed and/or
Minimally Processed Foods

Natural foods altered by processes that include the removal of unwanted and inedible parts by drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, roasting, boiling, pasteurization, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, or non-alcoholic fermentation. The goal of this group of foods is to extend the life of natural foods such as grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, milk, meat, etc., enabling their storage for longer use, and often making preparation easier or more diverse.

Example: frozen vegetables, dried legumes and nuts.
Processed Culinary Ingredients
Substances obtained directly from Group 1 foods or from nature, like oils and fats, sugar, and salt. They are created by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting, or mining, and their use is in the preparation, seasoning, and cooking of Group 1 foods. These foods are not meant to be consumed by themselves.

Example: olive oil.
Processed Foods
Industrial products made by adding salt, sugar or other substances found in Group 2 to Group 1 foods, using preservation methods such as canning and bottling, and, in the case of breads and cheeses, using non-alcoholic fermentation. The purpose of Group 3 foods is to increase the durability of Group 1 foods and make them more enjoyable by modifying or enhancing their sensory qualities. Traditional and long-established dietary patterns all over the world, including those known to promote long and healthy lives such as in Mediterranean countries, Japan and Korea, have been and are based on dishes and meals made from a variety of unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods, prepared, seasoned and cooked with processed culinary ingredients and complemented with processed foods.

Example: soy sauce, kimchi, simple bread flour, salt, water, yeast), canned tuna, tofu.
Ultra-Processed Foods
Foods that result from a series of industrial processes. Sugar, oils, fats, and salt used to make processed foods are often ingredients of ultra-processed foods, generally in combination. Additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties, and prevent proliferation of microorganisms may be used in both processed and ultra-processed foods, as well as in processed culinary ingredients. Ingredients characteristic of ultra-processed foods can be divided into food substances of no or rare culinary use and classes of additives that make the final product palatable or often hyper-palatable. The purpose of these foods is to create convenient and highly-profitable products designed to replace other food groups.

Example: soft drinks, energy/protein bars, protein powder, frozen meals.

Usually, these foods contain at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t find or use in your kitchen. If a label includes any of the ingredients listed below, you can consider them ultra-processed.

  • Fructose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Soy protein isolate
  • Soy lecithin
  • Hydrolyzed proteins
  • Soya protein isolate
  • Gluten
  • Casein
  • Whey protein
  • Mechanically separated meat
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Invert sugar
  • Maltodextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Lactose
  • Soluble or insoluble fiber
  • Hydrogenated or interesterified oil
  • Other sources of protein, carbohydrates or fat which are neither foods from NOVA Group 1 or 3, nor culinary ingredients from Group 2.
  • Cosmetic and other additives, such as flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners and anti-foaming, foaming, bulking, carbonating, gelling and glazing agents.

What Can We Do?

Be aware of deceptive marketing and media hype. Words such as healthy, natural, and even organic are used on packaging and labels and can be misleading. Repeat offenders:

  • Breakfast cereals/granola
  • Energy/protein bars
  • Flavored/fruit yogurt
  • Baked goods (breads, cakes, cookies)
  • Frozen meals (pizza/chicken nuggets)
  • Protein powders/collagen powder
  • Lattes/specialty coffees
  • Sauces/condiments

Cook more often, without processed ingredients, and if dining out, make informed choices.

I enjoy cooking and using fresh, seasonal ingredients, but recently I looked in my pantry and found a couple of ready-to-eat ultra-processed items. While I usually make my own teriyaki sauce, I decided to purchase ​organic teriyaki sauce​ at a local store via Instacart and hadn’t looked at the ingredients. When I received my groceries and took a close look at the label, I noticed an unhealthy amount of sugar. Another incident took place when I was heading out to hike with my family and grabbed an energy bar for my daughter, who is allergic to nuts. I chose a ​Clif Bar​, which, again, contained a lot of sugar. My point in relaying this to you is that we all fall victim to convenience.

Overall, we need to remain vigilant regarding labeling and policies of processed foods.

Sadly, the food industry has played a significant role in the popularity of processed foods, making them not only attractive due to packaging and pricing, but addictive, as well. Even more disturbing is that the food manufacturing industry is not obligated to state on labels the processes used in creating products. In some cases, this can make the identification of ultra-processed foods difficult for consumers, health professionals, policymakers, and even researchers. The displacement of “real food” by ultra-processed foods is a cause of social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental disruption and crises. I urge you to start and/or continue to read labels and take a moment to consider “is this food real?” before consuming.

Worth Reading

Baraldi, Larissa G., Cannon, Geoffrey, Cediel, Gustavo, et al., Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them, Cambridge University Press/2019

Dennett, Carrie, Ultra-processed foods aren’t good for us, but alternatives aren’t as simple as you think, The Seattle Times/2019

Garone, Sarah, Avoiding processed foods is already something we know, healthline/2018