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  • Writer's pictureAli

Healthy vs Ultra-Processed Foods

Updated: Jan 11

Ultra-processed foods are the primary energy source in North America and the UK, accounting for 58% and 56% of the calories consumed, respectively. 

Unfortunately, consuming more ultra-processed foods can lead to a 79% and 30% increased risk of obesity and abdominal obesity, which can further lead to diseases like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions, and cancer. 

To improve our nutrition and overall health, it is essential to know which foods come under the category of ultra-processed. 

The NOVA Food Classification system, designed by the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, helps to group foods based on their processing. It classifies foods into four groups: 

To differentiate between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods, use the checklist provided and gain a better understanding of food labelling.


It is important to understand the difference between unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed foods. Unprocessed or natural foods are whole foods that retain their intact vitamins and nutrients, often in their natural or nearly natural state. These foods are taken directly from plants or animals and are not altered in any way after being removed from nature.

On the other hand, minimally processed foods are modified by removing inedible parts, drying, fermentation, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing, or pasteurizing to make them safe to ingest and appropriate to store. However, this process does not add oils, fats, sugar, salt, or other substances to the original food.

Examples of unprocessed or minimally processed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, rice, grains such as wheat, oats, and other cereals, dried or fresh pasta, lentils, chickpeas, beans, and other dried legumes, eggs, fish, milk, meat, 100% fruit juice, tea of all types, coffee, spices, dried herbs, and tap, spring, and mineral water.


Processed culinary ingredients are products extracted from natural foods or nature through techniques such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing, and refining. 

When used in moderation in culinary preparations based on natural or minimally processed foods, these ingredients can contribute to delicious and eclectic diets without causing nutritional imbalances. However, some processed ingredients, such as rancid vegetable oil or those derived from low-quality sources, can damage our health. Hence, it is important to choose high-quality culinary ingredients. 

The list of such ingredients includes oils, fats (such as butter), vinegar, sugars, salt, honey extracted from honeycombs, and coconut fat.


Many foods go through processing that alters their natural state by adding substances like salt, oil, sugar, or other enhancers. Processed foods usually have two or three ingredients. 

However, it's important to note that not all processed foods are unhealthy. For example, freshly-made artisan sourdough bread and canned chickpeas are still processed, yet they can be part of a healthy diet.

Some examples of processed foods include canned fruit in syrup, canned fish such as sardines and tuna (with or without added preservatives), canned or bottled legumes or vegetables preserved in salt (brine) or vinegar, or by pickling, freshly-made (unpackaged) bread, beer, cider, and wine, cured meat, bacon, and fresh cheese.


Ultra-processed foods are those that contain substances extracted from other foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain synthetic additives like artificial colours, flavours, or stabilizers. Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, frozen meals, processed meat, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks. 

Studies have shown that the availability of nutrients in the small intestine is affected when food is ultra-processed because the food's plant properties and animal cells get altered. Health problems arise when ultra-processed foods replace unprocessed and minimally processed foods that contain vital nutrients for your health. It may be easy to identify ultra-processed foods because they usually contain numerous ingredients you would never use in your kitchen. However, ultra-processed foods are often disguised in everyday foods we take for granted.


Aim to consume mostly natural and or minimally processed foods (group one) and freshly made meals. 

Be wary but not fearful of processed foods (groups two and three), and always read food labels now that you know the dynamic range of good and bad foods in that group. 

Avoid or limit ultra-processed foods (group four) when possible to have the most positive impact on your health and longevity. 


Written by Ali.

Live in Harmony Co-Creator.


...because everyone loves a freebie

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