Is Processed Food Bad For You?
Updated: Mar 21
One of the core reasons why we eat so poorly today is due to the overabundance of processed food in our diet. Recently, I’ve been curious about what exactly is so bad about processed food. After all, it is still food, right?
But the general consensus everywhere seems to be that processed food is all bad and we should avoid it. Because I am the kind of person who generally dismisses blanket statements with skepticism, I decided to research this topic to find out the truth about processed food. Is it really all bad? If so, what exactly is bad about it? And are there any processed foods that are actually good for us? The truth was quite surprising.
Processed food is a core reason for poor diets, but not all processed foods are bad.
The NOVA classification system categorizes processed foods into four groups based on the level of food processing.
Ultra-processed foods with added sugars and salt are associated with negative health outcomes like obesity, type two diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
What Is Processed Food?
When we think of processed foods, most of us think of packaged snacks, but it turns out that not all processed foods are necessarily bad for us. In order to understand the health implications of eating processed food, we first have to define what exactly processed food is.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines any food that has been changed from its original state–no matter how minimally–as processed food .
Washing, cutting, chopping, pulverizing, pasteurizing, cooking, canning, freezing, and drying are all common food processing techniques, but adding salt, sugars, artificial flavors, and other ingredients to enhance flavor or increase shelf-life is the more unhealthy kind of food processing.
These “ready-to-eat” foods include things like microwave popcorn, lunch meat, frozen meals, crackers, cookies, sugary drinks, and more. As much as 60 percent of the foods Americans consume are ultra-processed–a trend that also coincides directly with the obesity crisis.
Foods we don’t tend to think of as processed such as frozen vegetables or unsweetened applesauce are processed too, but the processing they undergo is very minimal. This makes minimally processed foods less of a health concern; after all, our ancestors have been doing that for centuries.
Think of smoking or drying meat, pickling, canning fruits and vegetables, or hand-grinding whole grains into flour. These food processing techniques are all considered “minimal.” That is also why some processed foods are linked with lower rates of chronic diseases like olive oil or rolled oats.
NOVA Classification System: A Tool to Understand How Processed a Food Is
As it turns out, there is now a great way to distinguish between different types of processed foods using the NOVA food classification system. The NOVA system breaks down processed foods into four categories which are:
Group 1 foods are either completely unaltered, such as an apple, or have undergone very minimal processing such as cleaning, freezing, or refrigerating. Group one processed foods do not add anything to a food such as sugar or salt.
Group 2 foods also add nothing to the food but break food apart by pressing or grinding. Going with the apple example, unsweetened apple sauce would constitute this type of food.
Group 3 foods undergo food processing by adding ingredients such as sugar, salt, or fat, in addition to removing things like fiber, usually for food preservation and palatability purposes. Sweetened applesauce or apple juice with added sugar is a less-than-healthy example of this; tomato paste or freshly-made cheese is a healthier example.
Ultra Processed Foods: The Unhealthy Side of Processed Food
Lastly, Group 4 foods are made from substances synthesized in labs such as flavor enhancers and food coloring, and are usually “ready to eat.” Think boxed apple pie which has added colors, preservatives, and highly refined ingredients like sugar and white flour. Group 1 foods are usually absent from ultra-processed foods, and they look nothing like the original raw ingredient.
The NOVA classification system is a useful tool for determining the degree of food processing. In general, the more ingredients you see on a food label–especially those you don’t easily recognize–indicate a higher level of food processing.
In general, most Group 1-3 foods are healthy and not associated with poor health outcomes with the exception of added sugars, fruit juices, highly salted foods, and fermented (alcoholic) beverages. Outside of those few caveats,
Ultra-processed foods are where we run into most of the trouble when it comes to poor health outcomes like increased risk for type two diabetes and heart disease.