The Lowdown on Highly Processed Food

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In an era of busy work days and long commutes, you may find yourself turning to the convenience, ease, and appeal of processed foods. Well, you are not alone! Americans eat hundreds more calories per day than they did in the early 1960’s, and most of our calories come from highly processed foods. In fact, in the United States, such foods make up more than half of the calories we eat. That means the majority of the food we eat every day has been significantly changed from its original state.

Research shows that when compared to a minimally processed diet, a highly processed diet causes people to overeat and gain weight.  A recent study showed that people on a highly processed diet ate up to 500 calories more each day than people on a minimally processed diet. Highly processed foods often don’t make you feel full in the way that unprocessed foods do, even though they can pack in more calories per bite. This could cause you to overeat. You also may unknowingly eat highly processed foods faster due to the softer consistency, which makes them easier to chew and swallow. The convenience and long shelf-life promised by highly processed foods mean that they are made with additives, preservatives, and unnatural ingredients using industrial methods of processing. This leaves you with a mass-produced, semi-addictive, inexpensive food that is high in salt, fat, and added sugar. Sounds delicious, right? That’s no coincidence.

Highly Processed Cravings

It is no wonder that our brains crave highly processed foods -- they are made to be attractive and just plain yummy. The high levels of saturated fat, salt, and sugar added to these foods activate the reward-related regions in our brain, triggering some of the same brain circuits as addictive drugs. They cause abnormally high levels of reward signaling, which may trigger addictive-like biological and behavioral responses. When you eat a food you find rewarding, like a cookie, your brain ties smell, images, or the environment to that food, which can cause you to crave it. The food industry knows this and designs the taste of the food, as well as the marketing and packaging, to make you seek these foods out time and time again. 

Highly Processed vs. Minimally Processed Foods

So what exactly is a processed food? The NOVA classification is the most common system of classifying food processing. It uses four categories: unprocessed and minimally processed; processed cooking ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods (commonly called highly processed). 


Unprocessed & Minimally Processed Foods: Unprocessed foods are in the same state as they grow from the earth. Minimally processed foods are altered by: drying, roasting, boiling, refrigerating, freezing, chilling etc. to extend the usable life of the food, but do not add salt, sugar, oils or fats or other food substances.

  • Seeds 

  • Fruits

  • Leafy and cruciferous vegetables (fresh or frozen)

  • Root and starchy vegetables

  • Whole grains 

  • Beans, lentils

  • Raw tree nuts 

  • Spices such as pepper, cloves, and cinnamon

  • Herbs such as thyme and mint, fresh or dried

  • Tea, coffee, drinking water

  • Meat 

  • Seafood

  • Eggs

  • Milk without added flavorings

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Processed Cooking Ingredients: Substances that come from natural foods by processes like pressing, refining or grinding. These are not normally eaten alone but are used in the preparation of other foods in a home kitchen. 

  • Vegetable oils 

  • Iodized salt

  • Salted butter

  • Cane or beet sugar, honey, maple syrup

  • Vinegar 

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Processed Foods: These foods are made by adding sugar, oil, or salt and are packaged. Most foods in this group have two or three added ingredients. Although these foods are altered, some are still healthy while others are not. They are processed to extend their shelf life and for convenience. 

  • Canned or bottled vegetables or fruits

  • Canned lentils or beans

  • Salted nuts or seeds

  • Tofu

  • 100% whole-wheat breads

  • Pickled vegetables 

  • Cheeses

  • Salted, cured, or pickled meats

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Highly Processed Foods: Called ultra-processed in the NOVA system, these foods go through multiple processes and are made with five or more ingredients. They contain ingredients which are not naturally found in nature, would not typically be used by a home cook, and are meant to enhance flavor and shelf-life. These foods are not healthful. 

  • Soda

  • Sweet or savory packaged snacks

  • Chocolate, candies 

  • Packaged, refined breads or buns

  • Margarines or butter replacement spreads

  • Cookies, pastries, cakes

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Energy bars, energy drinks

  • Fruit drinks, cocoa drinks

  • Powdered meal replacement shakes

  • Frozen dinners

  • Packaged instant soups and noodles

  • Ketchup, some pasta sauces

  • Lunch meats

  • Hot dogs and sausage

  • Fish or chicken nuggets

  • Sweetened and flavored yogurt

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods are the most natural and should ideally make up most of your diet. A dietary pattern based predominantly on a variety of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is the most healthful, so for greatest benefit minimize or omit even unprocessed or minimally processed meat, dairy and eggs.

On the other end of the spectrum are highly processed foods like the plastic-wrapped muffins from the grocery store or a hot dog at a sports game. This group of foods contain unnatural ingredients you would never use in your own kitchen, like high fructose corn syrup, and are the worst for our health. Highly processed foods are unhealthy for multiple reasons. If these foods make up most of your diet, you are likely not eating enough of the essential vitamins and minerals our bodies require from whole plant foods. If you do eat small amounts of meat, dairy or eggs, choose unprocessed or minimally processed versions such as baked salmon rather than a hot dog.

Shopping Smarter

Now that you know about different levels of food processing and the effects of these foods on your body and brain, let’s look at a few examples to show how you might shop smarter. Start by reading the ingredient list. A fresh bread loaf that contains only 100% whole wheat flour, salt, yeast, and water is processed. But, the ingredients are natural and minimal, so it is not necessarily bad for your health. However, many breads contain only highly refined white enriched flour as well as ingredients like colors, emulsifiers, hydrogenated oils, or insoluble fiber. Avoid this type of highly processed bread. Cereal containing only ingredients like steel-cut oats or shredded wheat is minimally processed and beneficial to your health. However, most breakfast cereals are highly processed with ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, or colors. Avoid highly processed breakfast cereals and instead opt for a less processed cereal or steel cut oats for a great step toward health. Even your favorite nut butters can have ingredients like added sugars and oil! In general, take a minute to scan the ingredient lists on your food products. 

A good rule of thumb: If a food has more than five ingredients, or if you can’t pronounce a few of the ingredients, then it is probably a highly processed food. 

Focus on purchasing fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains and you’ll naturally start to crowd out some of the more processed foods.

Trade Up Ideas

While it may feel like there are an overwhelming number of components to remember about maintaining a healthy diet, a “golden rule” is to avoid highly processed foods. Here are a few  ideas to swap out processed snacks with unprocessed or minimally processed foods: 

Breakfast swaps: 

  • Sugared cereal swap (like Honey Nut Cheerios) with oatmeal and fruit with a sprinkling of nuts.

  • Fruit juice swap with a piece of whole fruit 

Lunch Swaps: 

  • Deli meat sandwich on white bread swap with avocado and lots of fresh veggies toast on 100% whole wheat bread

  • BLT swap with sandwich with tomato, lettuce, avocado, and tempeh (TLT)

  • Margarine or mayonnaise swap with avocado or hummus

  • Baked or regular chips swap with air-popped popcorn 

Dinner Swaps: 

  • Frozen dinner swap with low-sodium canned beans, brown rice, and chopped veggies

  • Canned tomato sauce with added sugar and oils, swap with a low-sodium brand containing just tomatoes and herbs, or make your own with fresh chopped tomatoes, herbs, and extra virgin olive oil

  • Deep-fried food swap with steamed, sautéed, or baked 

  • French fries swap with baked or boiled sweet potato

  • Store-bought salad dressing swap with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar

  • Salad toppings like croutons, tortilla strips, or bacon bits swap with fresh or roasted vegetables or unsalted nuts or seeds 

Snack Swaps:

  • Cheese and crackers swap with carrots and hummus

  • Snack bars swap with a handful of unsalted nuts and dried fruit

  • Soda swap with sparkling water with lemon 

Your Challenges:

  1. Identify where your food comes from - nature, someone’s kitchen, or a factory. Shift your perspective by thinking of foods as a whole nutrient wrapped package. If you have trouble identifying where a food comes from in nature, like an apple from a tree, consider the impact it may be having on your health. 

  2. Try to go one day eating only foods with less than five ingredients and notice how you feel.

  3. Start by preparing at least one meal at home per day. Half of the money Americans spend on food goes toward eating out, but you are much more likely to know what you are eating when you prepare food at home.

EATKara Mosesso