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What is really in your food?

In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to forget to pause and think about what we’re putting into our bodies. Processed foods have become a staple in many people's diets due to their convenience and availability. These are food products that have undergone various mechanical or chemical processes to alter their taste, texture, or shelf life. They often contain added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. Processed foods can include items such as packaged snacks, frozen meals, sugary beverages, and fast food, thought to be devised to be moreish and calorie dense. It is important to understand the impact these foods can have on our health and take steps towards reducing their consumption.

NOVA categorizes all foods and food products into 4 groups based on the nature and extent of the physical, biological and chemical processes they have undergone (1).

Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed foods or minimally processed foods are foods that have not been altered from their natural state, or have only undergone processes like removal of inedible or unwanted parts, E.g., Grains, Fruits and freshly squeezed fruit juices, vegetables, meat (includes poultry), milk and plain yoghurt, eggs, fish and seafood.

Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients are substances extracted from the first group or from nature by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing and refining. E.g., honey, vegetable oils, butter, lard, and vinegar, maple syrup, molasses and honey.

Group 3. Processed foods

Processed foods are products manufactured by industry by adding salt, sugar, oil or other group 2 ingredients to unprocessed or minimally processed foods to preserve or make them more palatable. E.g., canned fish and meats, cheeses, salted or sugared nuts and seeds, breads made of ingredients used in culinary preparations.

Group 4. Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are ready to eat/drink/heat industrial formulations that are made with multiple industrial ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories, while containing little whole foods e.g., sausages, biscuits, sweet/savoury packaged snacks, candies, ready to eat/heat pizza, sandwich, or burger, frozen or shelf-stable dishes, instant soups/noodles.

Consuming excessive amounts of processed foods is thought to pose significant health risks. The British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) suggest that limiting processed foods can support a healthy lifestyle (2). These products are typically high in calories but low in essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Regularly consuming them has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Additionally, the additives used in processed foods may have negative effects on our overall well-being. By relying heavily on these convenient options instead of whole foods with fresh ingredients, we may be compromising our long-term health.

To reduce the intake of processed foods and improve overall health and well-being it is important to prioritize whole food options. This means opting for fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned ones that may contain added sugars or preservatives. Meal planning can also be beneficial as it allows for more control over ingredients used in meals while saving time and money. Cooking at home using whole ingredients gives us the opportunity to experiment with flavours while ensuring we know exactly what goes into our meals. Gradually replacing processed snacks with healthier alternatives such as nuts or homemade granola bars can also make a significant difference in reducing reliance on packaged goods.

By being mindful about the amount of processed food we consume and making conscious choices to prioritize whole, unprocessed foods, we can take important steps towards improving our overall health and well-being.


1)    Livingston AS, et al. bmjnph 2021;0:1–8. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2021-000303

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