Chantel Brink
Chantel Brink
April 9, 2024 ·  5 min read

Processed Foods Have Always Been Deemed Unhealthy. What Exactly Does It Mean For A Food To Be ‘Processed’?

They are usually those tasty, really cheap, decadent, and super-convenient ones that every doctor says we shouldn’t eat. Why do all the good stuff have to be harmful?

Generally, processed foods are defined as foods that have been converted from one form to another, usually finished with the addition of preservatives, sweeteners, inorganic nutrients, colors, and flavors [1].

Several studies in the past have prominently established direct links between the consumption of processed foods and cancer, obesity, hypertension, and premature mortality. One of the most prominent studies in recent times is the French NutriNet Santé Cohort which lasted 8 years, from 2009 – 2017 [2].

104,980 participants aged between 18 and 43 were involved in the study, each providing information on their consumption habits of 3,300 food items. At the end of the study, it was discovered that participants who ate foods high in sodium, lipids, and carbohydrates had a higher overall risk of cancer. A 10% increase in the dietary supply of processed foods could be linked to a higher risk of overall, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer, estimated to be greater than 10%.

We gain 500 more calories daily from processed foods

Following a new study conducted by the National Institute of Health in the United States, more strikes are coming up for processed foods in the nutrition chart [3]. The researchers at Bethesda Metabolic Clinical Research Unit, led by NIH’s Kevin Hall, isolated 20 men and women from 28 days and progressively fed them heavily processed foods.

Their sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and other body statistics were recorded periodically throughout this period. At the end of the study, it was discovered that when people constantly eat processed foods, they consume about 500 more calories every day.

“It’s a very big difference, and it’s an important difference,” Hall said. “There really is a causal relationship between ultra-processed foods and how many calories people choose to eat.”

The ultimate NOVA food classification

Not all processed foods are actually the carcinogenic, unhealthy sort. Some are far more dangerous than others, and we often have a hard time identifying which ones to exclude from our diet. Food can be classified in other ways aside from the regular nutrient classification.

NOVA is a scheme that classifies foods into four categories based on the extent of processing they have undergone. This scheme was designed by researchers at the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. It has been accepted by scientists globally as a valid nutritional consultation and research tool.

Under this classification, foods are grouped into four categories [4]:

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed foods are the readily edible parts of plants and animals that can be eaten without any alteration to their natural forms upon harvesting or slaughter. These include nuts, fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes, muscle, offal, milk, etc. Minimally processed foods denote foods that have undergone some form of alteration to their natural forms such as boiling, frying, drying, salting, freezing, baking, etc. They include parboiled rice, frozen yogurt, dried nuts and fruits, etc. These foods are usually the healthiest and least caloric for consumption.

Processed culinary ingredients

These are food products derived directly from the unprocessed foods by methods of milling, drying, pasteurizing, crushing, refining, etc. They are regular ingredients used as part of the culinary processes, such as butter for bread and sautéing, oil, honey, syrups, starches, etc.  

Processed foods

These are food items produced by the addition of yeast, oil, butter, milk, sugar, and some other items from the second group to the unprocessed foods. These foods may undergo some form of an industrial process, and they are usually produced to increase the shelf life of unprocessed foods. Canned foods, bread, cake, sardines, bottled vegetables, and more constitute part of processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods

This class contains foods that are factory-manufactured with tons of ingredients, preservatives, additives, thickeners, sweeteners, artificial coloring, artificial flavors, concentrates, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, and stabilizers. They are usually very high in oil and sugar content and are packaged in various forms which may include bottling, tin-canning, aluminum foil wrapping, nylon wrapping, and plastic packaging.

They are ready-to-eat upon purchase and usually last several months on the shelf.

These foods include sodas, sausages, whipped creams, energy bars, chicken nuggets, store-bought ice-cream, chocolate bars, granola bars, cereals, fruit drinks (made with artificial favours, colours), instant noodles, instant soup, etc.

The problem usually starts from group 2, but they reach an apex with the group 4 items. These items are usually much cheaper and affordable than unprocessed foods. Ultra-processed foods form the class of foods that are to be totally avoided. They increase the risks of cancer, obesity, high glucose levels, hypertension and early death [5].

Inaccessibility of the healthy stuff

Processed foods are usually cheaper than the natural ones. Fresh vegetables are always costlier than the regular brands of canned vegetables. The government has often been accused of making people sicker by subsidizing foods such as corn and soy. This cheapening of prices gives the incentive to use those raw materials and process them in various foods and food ingredients, in the end making us sicker [6].

For instance, sodas, ice cream, donuts and all the decadently unhealthy stuff are conveniently more affordable. At Walmart, a 1.25L bottle of Coca-Cola costs $0.99 dollars while 10 ounces of fresh spinach costs $2.38.

“You can’t just tax them and make them more expensive and less convenient for people,” Kevin Hall said. “You also have to support access and availability to unprocessed meals.”

If we can afford it, it’s best to cultivate a habit of choosing unprocessed, fresh foods over the ultra-processed ones. They are killing us faster and making us unhealthily fatter.


  1. Admin. Eating processed foods. NHS.
  2. Fiolet et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. PMC. 14-02-18
  3. Brueck, Hilary. There’s evidence for the first time that processed foods like muffins and quesadillas cause us to eat about 500 more calories every day. Business Insider. 16-05-19
  4. Monteiro, et al. NOVA. The star shines bright. WPHNA. March 2016.
  5. Brueck, Hilary. Processed foods make us fatter, lead to cancer, and are linked with early death. But what, exactly, is a processed food? Pulse. 17-05-19
  6. Goldstein, Manya. The United States has an Epidemic of Processed Food — and it’s Killing Us. Use Journal. 11-12-18
  7. Hall, Kevin. NIH.
  8. Admin. Nova. Open Food Facts.