Grocery shopping, navigating processed foods and reading food labels has become so confusing. Food used to be simple – it came directly from nature – whether foraging, hunting, or farming.
Now we have access to so many things that don’t resemble food from nature. I love Michael Pollan’s famous quote…
Eat Food – Not too much – Mostly PlantsMichael Pollen
And in his book, In Defense of Food, he says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” I’m sure we can agree that we’ve all eaten some things are not recognizable by our great-great-grandmothers!… candy bars, fast food, and sports drinks for example.
We can also say that many of the chronic health issues we face today: heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, cavities, etc. exist at far greater rates since processed foods became available.
But, where do we draw the line in calling a food processed? Is there a specific definition?
Levels of Processing
The NOVA internationally recognized classification system gives definitions for 4 levels:
Unprocessed – These are the edible parts of plants or animals, and also fungi, algae, and water, after separation from nature.
Example: This is like eating a whole apple right off the tree – clearly unprocessed.
Minimally processed – These are unprocessed foods that have been altered in some way without adding anything to the food (including sugar, salt or oil). So there is still only one ingredient. For example, the food may be dried, ground, boiled, pasteurized, frozen, vacuum sealed, or fermented etc.
Example: This is like coring and slicing an apple for eating or making applesauce (as long as nothing is added).
Processed – These are products made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other ingredients to unprocessed foods. These typically have 2-3 ingredients. These foods can still be healthy, but stay away if one of the added ingredients is sugar.
Example: This is like adding cinnamon or sugar to your minimally processed apple or applesauce.
Ultra-processed – These foods will have 5 or more ingredients that usually include: sugar, salt, oils, stabilizers, flavours and preservatives. In other words, they often include ingredients that you couldn’t buy in the store yourself. Unprocessed foods are a small proportion of or are even absent from ultra-processed products.
Example: This is like taking that original apple and including it in a packaged apple strudel.
In short, the first 2 levels are OK, beware of the 3rd and stay away from the 4th!
While the line is clear between unprocessed and ultra-processed, I find that the 2 middle levels have a fine line between them. How do I draw my own line?
I am far from perfect, but my own rule of thumb is when the 1-2 ingredients being added are acceptable to me (say, water and sea salt added to canned beans), then I go for it. When sugar has been added, I draw the line and don’t buy.
When there are 5 or more ingredients, I look at them and ask myself whether I could buy them all in the store or not. If I can, and one of them isn’t sugar (my exception is dark chocolate!), then I go for it. I figure I’m really just paying for the added convenience since I could buy all the ingredients and make it myself if I wanted.
Now that you know the definitions of these foods, I think you’ll agree that the commonly used term “processed” is mostly referring to ultra-processed foods.
Do you have challenges staying away from them in the grocery store and need a reset? Book a free discovery call with Bonnie here to discuss
I’d love to hear your thought on these definitions. Let me know in the FaceBook group. I’d love to get some fun discussions going on about this there!