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Processed vs. unprocessed foods: getting the facts

Diets high in “ultra-processed” foods are the norm for many Americans, and a potential threat to health. [Adobestock photo]

It seems that more and more often these days, health experts are advising us to “eat less processed food.” Taking that advice is easier said than done, however, because processed foods have become a mainstay of the American diet.

A study recently published in The BMJ [British Medical Journal] found that “ultra-processed,” also called highly processed, foods are the primary source of calories consumed in the U.S. They account for nearly 58% of the nation’s food intake, and contribute almost 90% of the carbohydrates adults receive from added sugars.

So what exactly is processed food, and what are its potential impacts on health? 

Unprocessed [or minimally processed] foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. These foods are consumed in their natural, or nearly natural, state. They may be minimally altered by the removal of inedible parts, or by drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing, or pasteurizing them to make them suitable to store and safe to consume. Examples of unprocessed and minimally processed foods are fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, raw chicken, fish and whole cuts of red meats, eggs, and nuts.

Processing changes a food from its natural state – essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Examples include canned tuna or canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, and freshly made breads. Most processed foods still contain just a few ingredients.

On the other end of the processing spectrum, highly processed [or ultra-processed] foods generally contain a long list of added ingredients such as sugar, salt and fats, along with artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Examples of ultra-processed foods are frozen meals, sweetened breakfast cereals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast foods and many other restaurant-prepared meals, packaged cookies, cakes and salty snacks, among many others.

Although warnings against eating high amounts of processed meat have existed for several years, previous studies also have linked diets high in other ultra-processed foods to greater risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some cancers.

Last year, two large European studies found significant correlations between consumption of highly processed foods and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

The researchers who worked on those studies said that although further work is needed to better understand the reasons for these effects, policies should be put in place to educate the public and promote consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods over highly processed foods.

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