2018 – time to cut back on ultra-processed food


Most of us are so accustomed to eating processed food we don’t really think about how it came to be. Widely available, we give little mind to how the processing changed the food and the affects on our health. But as the New Year begins after the excesses of the festive season, before you rip into your next bag of pretzels or unwrap a candy bar, pause for a moment and think about the mechanisms that went into making it:

  • How did the wheat get from the field into the bag of salty pretzels?
  • What was added to the cocoa beans to make them into a caramel-filled chocolate bar?

Studies show that diets high in refined and processed foods are not as nutritious as ones filled with whole foods, like vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains and fish. If your current meals and snacks come from a package rather than a farm, it may be time for a dietary intervention. Changing the types of foods you choose can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia and cancer.

Processed food – what’s in the process?

Food is not healthy or unhealthy simply because it is ‘processed’. The definition of process is to perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on (something) in order to change or preserve it. That’s benign enough – it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. When food is altered or changed in some way, it undergoes a process, but not all processes are bad. Some traditional methods, such as fermenting or freezing, can enhance the nutritional quality of foods.

Of course, those fermented and frozen foods aren’t the problematic processed foods in the diet, so it’s important to have some further definitions for clarification. For this, we turn to NOVA’s globally-accepted definitions of four food categories.

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: These are the foods that should make up the bulk of your diet. This category includes vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, eggs, and milk. Minimal processing can help preserve the food, extend shelf life (like freezing vegetables), and make it easier to use (like shelled nuts). If your meals are largely based on these foods, your health will benefit.

Processed culinary ingredients: Those veggies, grains and meats don’t always taste good on their own, and are better with some flavor enhancers. Things like herbs, spices, oil and salt fall into this category. They don’t appear in packages the same way they appeared in nature, but the processing has been minimal. And because they make nutritious foods taste even better, they are on the “good” list too.

Processed foods: Okay, so let’s say you take a minimally processed food and manipulate it, perhaps like turning milk into cheese. That’s a processed food. This definition applies when fats, oils, sugars, salt, and other culinary ingredients are added to minimally processed foods. Other examples are tuna packed in oil, or canned fruit in syrup. The food has been altered, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health. These foods can have a place in a healthy diet, and provide flavor, variety and convenience.

Ultra-processed foods: This is where the problem lies. These foods go through multiple processes, and contain additives that wouldn’t be found in a home kitchen. Do you have hydrolyzed protein, diglycerides and soy lecithin on hand? Me neither. Ultra-processed foods are often reshaped, molded or extruded – like cereal O’s; chicken nuggets; and smiling French fries. They are high in salt, sugar, fat (or all three), contain additives and preservatives, and have been extremely manipulated compared to how they once appeared in nature. Examples are soft drinks, pretzels, chips, chocolate, candy, pastries, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries, and more. But you get the idea.

Surely we don’t eat that much ultra-processed food…?

Sadly, we do. We scarf down tons of it:

  • Canadians get almost 50 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods
  • In the US, that number is almost 60 percent.
  • In France it’s less – about 39 percent. That’s still a lot!!

Ultra-processed foods have low nutritional quality. The more that’s consumed, the poorer the nutritional quality of the whole diet. Processing also strips food of nutrients that the body needs, like when whole grains are refined, made into flour, and baked into cookies. Bye-bye fiber, magnesium, and B-vitamins.

Imagine this: If you are filling up on ultra-processed foods, it leaves little room in your diet for healthier options, like a handful of almonds or a ripe apple. It can lead to your body lacking the fiber, omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals it needs, because those nutrients just aren’t found in candy and chips.

Up to 80 percent of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke can be prevented by eating healthy diets and being physically active. So, next time you unwrap a packaged treat, think about what the raw ingredients were and how they were changed along the way. And maybe you’ll choose an apple instead.


Eating smarter the Just Routine way


Cutting back on ultra-processed foods is easier than you might think, as long as you know what to eat instead! In Just Routine it’s easy to explore the browsable real food database or to scroll through hundreds of Just Routine recipes and download into your Cookbook.

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Cara Rosenbloom, Registered Dietician, columnist for The Washington Post, celebrated author, active food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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