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Detecting Ultraprocessed Foods

by Marianne Navada

The NOVA food classification system labels food based on the amount of processing it undergoes before being sold and consumed. It’s a must reference for anyone who wants to eat a more wholesome diet and avoid ultraprocessed food.

What Is Ultraprocessed Food?

Ultraprocessed foods are factory-created. “They’re pumped full of chemicals and other additives for color, flavor, texture, and shelf life.” When bought, these foods usually require little to no preparation and are cheaper.

Ultraprocessed foods are industrial formulations or mostly substances extracted from foods (oil, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancer, colors, and several additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).

such as: dairy drinks, pre-prepared dishes, energy or sports drinks, canned or instant soups, ice cream, confectionery, pre-prepared poultry and fish, baked goods…

Source | NOVA Food Classification

Why Avoid It?

Engineered food can cause a litany of health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, high-blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and obesity.

In a recent study on ultraprocessed food and weight management, subjects that ate ultraprocessed foods increased their caloric intake and gained weight. One theory is that eating ultraprocessed food disturbs the microbiome in our gut, since ultraprocessed foods are usually stripped of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients, which results in overeating and other chronic diseases.

The Alternatives


Processed foods are products manufactured by industry with the use of salt, sugar, oil, or other substances added to natural or minimally processed foods to preserve or to make them more palatable. They are derived directly from foods and are recognized as versions of the original foods.

such as: canned veggies and fish, tomato extracts and pastes, canned beans and legumes, salter or sugared nuts, freshly-made cheeses…

Minimally Processed

Minimally processed foods are natural foods that have been submitted to cleaning, removal of inedible or unwanted parts, fractioning, grinding, dying, fermentation, pasteurization, cooling, freezing, or other processes that may subtract part of the food, but which do not add oils, fat, sugar, salt, or other substances to the original foods.

such as: wheat grain, oats, frozen veggies, coffee, lentils, fresh and dried herbs…

In contrast, unprocessed or natural “foods are directly obtained from plants or animals and do not undergo any alteration following their removal from nature.”

Clearly, most food available in the stores undergo some minimal processing. The point is not to avoid any form of processing, but to choose the least processed alternative.

Eating more natural foods starts with grocery shopping and a commitment to not get caught up with the fast and inexpensive selections. With the many choices we have in the stores, it’s easy to get tempted by healthy buzz words such as “nature”, “kale”, or “non-GMO“ , so it pays off to enter a store with a filter based on a product’s level of processing. Don’t let the catchphrases distract you.

  • Check ingredients: avoid ingredients such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and foods that contain flavoring agents and emulsifiers.

    Google it: if you’re unsure about an ingredient, search for it. If you’re not convinced about the power of due diligence when it comes to researching ingredients, Sarah Kavanagh’s story, a teenager who got PepsiCo and Coca-Cola to drop Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO) in their sports drinks, should be inspiring.

  • Another tip: when choosing from a variety of packaged food, let’s say peanut better, scan the label and choose the one that has one ingredient: peanuts. The point is that it’s not always the expensive brand that has the simplest ingredients or just because something has kale, it doesn’t mean it’s free of additives.

  • Stick to organic ingredients whenever possible.
  • Keep frozen uncooked veggies: fear of spoilage prevents most from buying fruits and vegetables, so have frozen fruits and vegetable handy. Frozen veggies are great for making last minute meals such as stir fry, fried rice, or vegetable curry. When you feel like having something sweet to drink, you can easily make a smoothie.

Frozen vegetables are a good alternative and may be superior to the off-season fresh vegetables sold in supermarkets.

Source | Dr. Weil

  • Avoid the can: ditch the canned beans, soups, and sauces. These are considered processed foods. Rather, buy dried lentils and beans instead, which are only minimally processed.
  • Clean flavors: skip the packaged broth and bouillon and use dried and powdered herbs and spices to add flavor. You can store the latter without the added preservatives.
  • Whole Grains: grab the brown rice and skip the packaged bread. If you are going to buy bread, choose freshly-made with these basic ingredients: wheat flour, yeast, water, and salt.
  • No Shortcuts: avoid pre-packaged meals and meal replacement drinks.
  • Easy on the alcohol and sports drinks: whisky, gin, rum, vodka are categorized as ultra processed foods.

Flavoring Agents

“There are over 1200 different flavoring agents used in foods to create flavor or replenish flavors lost or diminished in processing, and hundreds of chemicals may be used to simulate nature flavors.” Examples are amyl acetate, benzaldehyde…

source | Food Science Avenue


Combines two or more liquids that normally can’t stay mixed together for a certain time. Examples are Mono and Diglycerides, PolyGlycerol Ester…

Percentage of Diet that Comes from Ultraprocessed Foods

  • United States: 61%
  • United Kingdom: 62%
  • Canada: 63%

Source | Biomed Central

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