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Healthy vs. Highly Processed Food: What to Know

A checklist to help you discover the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods for better health

Navigating the noise around processed and ultra-processed food makes eating a healthy meal feel almost too stressful to bother.

But nearly 58% of calories eaten in the US and 56% of the calories consumed in the UK come from Ultra-processed foods, making them the primary energy source of those countries.

The worse news is that higher consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with a 79% and 30% substantial risk of obesity and abdominal obesity, increasing the risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, Type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions and cancer.

Knowing what foods get grouped as ultra-processed can help us prioritize our focus for better nutrition and overall health. The Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, designed the NOVA Food Classification system, which helps people group foods according to the processing they experience.

The four groups are:

1. Unprocessed and minimally processed,

2. Processed culinary ingredients,

3. Processed,

4. Ultra-processed


Group One: Unprocessed & Minimally Processed

Fruit ● Vegetables ● Nuts ● Seeds ● Rice ● Grains of wheat, oats, and other cereals ● Dried or fresh pasta ● Lentils, chickpeas, beans, and other dried legumes ● Eggs ● Fish ● Milk ● Meat ● 100 percent fruit juice ● Tea (all types) ● Coffee ● Spices ● Dried herbs ● Tap, spring, and mineral water

Group Two: Processed Culinary Ingredients

Oils ● Fats such as butter ● Vinegar ● Sugars ● Salt ● Honey extracted from honeycombs ● Coconut fat

Group Three: Processed

Canned fruit in syrup ● Canned fish, like sardine 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 ● Fresh cheese

Group Four: Ultra-Processed

Fatty, sweet, savory, or salty packaged snacks ● Biscuits (cookies) ● Ice creams and frozen desserts ● Chocolates, candies, & confectionery in general ● Cola, soda, and other carbonated soft drinks ● 'Energy' and sports drinks ● Canned or packaged or dehydrated (powdered), & other 'instant' soups, noodles, sauces, desserts, drink mixes, and seasonings ● Sweetened & flavored yogurts, including fruit yogurts ● Dairy drinks, including chocolate milk ● Sweetened juices ● Margarine & spreads ● Pre-prepared (packaged) meat, fish,& vegetables ● Pre-prepared pizza and pasta dishes ● Pre-prepared burgers, hot dogs, sausages ● Pre-prepared poultry & fish 'nuggets' & 'sticks' ● Other animal products made from remnants ● Packaged bread, hamburgers, & hot dog buns, ● Baked products containing ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives ● Breakfast cereals and bars ● Infant formulas and adult meal replacement shake (e.g., 'slim fast.') ● Pastries, cakes, and cake mixes ● Distilled alcoholic beverages like whisky, gin, rum, and vodka


Ten Healthy Swaps For Ultra-Processed Food

  1. Swap sugary breakfast cereals for rolled oats.

  2. Swap sweetened yogurt for plain or Greek yogurt.

  3. Swap frozen pizza for homemade pizza.

  4. Swap chicken nuggets for homemade crumbed chicken.

  5. Swap sausages for lean meat.

  6. Swap frozen sweet potato wedges for fresh sweet potato cut into wedges, sprinkled with paprika, and baked in the oven.

  7. Swap potato chips for plain air-popped popcorn.

  8. Swap soft drink for mineral water infused with a squeeze of lime, lemon or crushed strawberries or raspberries.

  9. Swap mayonnaise for avocado with a squeeze of lemon.

  10. Swap muesli and energy snack bars for mixed unsalted nuts

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.

Stay healthy and happy out there!

Eleanor Campbell,

Nutritionist and Trainer

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