Can you recall your grandmother’s pickling traditions? Or Jerky’s salty and savory flavor? Yes, all of these traditional foods are the result of food processing.
The process of transforming raw materials into different consumables is known as food processing. Today almost all food items go through food processing. From a simple packet of pasteurized milk to a can of Coke full of additives, preservatives, and colors.
But is everything processed bad for health, and how can we distinguish between healthy and bad? This article will share all the information you should know about processed foods before going out for routine shopping.
Healthy food vs. Highly processed food
Not all the time, processed foods are bad for your health. For example, we all know that pasteurizing milk kills harmful germs and reduces illnesses caused by contaminated milk. This process involves minimal changes to natural food items, so it remains a healthy option, even after food processing.
But on the other hand, when the food item goes through intensive manufacturing processes with added additives, preservatives, colors, or emulsifiers, it no longer remains a healthier option. The result is that customers find the food items more appealing and palatable.
NOVA Food Classification for Processed Foods
For a better understanding, let’s look at the types of processed food classified by the United Nations according to the level of processing and manufacturing.
(The United Nations has a food grouping scale called the NOVA food classification.)
NOVA 1: Minimally processed or not processed food items that maintain their natural properties fall into this category, including packaged vegetables, fruits, milk, or eggs.
NOVA 2: Processed culinary ingredients used as a side for cooking fall into this category, which includes oil, maple syrup, sugar, and salt. This group includes food items from group 1 or nature.
NOVA 3: This group includes food items from Group 2 and Group 1 that are modified but still hold their natural properties, for example, roasted nuts or coffee beans, canned fish, and frozen fruits.
NOVA 4: Ultra-processed foods that have gone through intensive manufacturing processes with added additives, preservatives, colors, or emulsifiers.
Examples of ultra-processed foods are instant meals or ready-to-eat products that require no preparation, such as soft drinks, instant noodles, chocolates, and cereal bowls. Furthermore, ultra-processed foods are high in calories, fat, salt, and added sugars. On the other hand, they are low in essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This unevenly high ratio of calories to nutrients makes it unhealthy and leads to obesity and chronic diseases.
Consuming highly processed food for a long time can affect your health effectively and lead to diseases such as:
Obesity: Can you remember the last time you consumed highly processed food, and what did you like about it? The convenience and superior taste make this food highly addictive. Furthermore, these food items contain high calories due to the number of ingredients involved in their preparation. And ultimately, the irregular eating pattern and overconsumption will put extra fats in your body.
Chronic diseases: Research from Harvard University suggests an association between a high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, not all highly processed food leads to chronic diseases, but it can be unhealthy.
How to be careful when purchasing processed foods?
We cannot avoid processed foods since they are everywhere and also necessary. So the best option is to stick with minimally processed food items. They are healthier to eat and maintain their natural properties even after being processed.
You can follow the following points while purchasing processed foods:
Read the labels: A packaged food product always contains a nutrition column, ingredients involved, and information about allergic reactions that can cause after consumption. Thus the fewer ingredients involved in food processing, the higher the chances it is minimally processed.
Look for alternatives or better options: You can avoid processed foods by purchasing fresh vegetables and fruits from an organic products aisle of a supermarket or by visiting farms. You can also opt for cooking at home instead of relying on ready-to-eat meals and packaged juices. Further, looking for an expensive alternative in this time of high inflation can hit hard on your wallet.
Follow the cooking instructions: Before cooking an instant or ready-to-eat meal, you can cross-check the temperature and time required for cooking it properly.
Avoid highly processed meats: You can avoid processed meat added with extra preservatives to increase its shelf life; instead, look for other options.