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A Guide to Whole, Processed and Ultra-Processed Food

What's the difference between processed and ultra-processed food? What does "whole food" actually mean? Is processed food unhealthy? If you're struggling with these questions, read on! This handy guide explains what each term means, whether or not these foods are healthy, and includes lots of examples.

Foods are grouped according to the level of processing they have been through:

Group one: unprocessed "whole" and minimally processed foods

Unprocessed, natural, whole foods are the edible parts of plants, animals, fungi and algae.

Examples of unprocessed, whole foods:

  • Fruit (e.g. kiwi, mango, blackberry)

  • Vegetables (e.g. turnip, runner beans, radish)

  • Grains (e.g. oats, barley, wheat)

  • Nuts (e.g. cashews, almonds, peanuts)

  • Lentils (green yellow, red)

  • Beans (e.g. kidney beans, black beans, edamame)

  • Seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds)

  • Animal products in their natural state (e.g. unpasteurised milk, eggs, unprocessed fish and meat)

Minimally processed foods are natural foods which have been altered in order to extend the useful life of the food, for example by removing inedible parts, drying, roasting or pasteurising. The vast majority of the nutritional properties of the food are protected, and no salt, sugar, oils or fats are added.

Examples of minimally processed foods:

  • Frozen fruit and vegetables

  • Packaged, cut, frozen vegetables

  • Frozen fish

  • Pasteurised milk

  • Dried / fresh pasta, couscous, polenta made from water and flours

  • 100% fruit juice

  • Yoghurt with no added sugar

  • Herbs and spices

  • Tea and coffee

All foods in group one contribute to a healthy diet.

Group two: processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients are condiments extracted and purified from group one foods. They are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with foods in group one.

Examples of processed culinary ingredients:

  • Plant oils made from seeds, nuts and fruits (e.g. sunflower oil, olive oil, coconut oil)

  • Animal fats (e.g. butter)

  • Sugar (e.g. brown sugar, white sugar, molasses)

  • Honey and maple syrup

  • Salt

  • Any food combining 2 of the above, such as salted butter

In moderation, foods in group two contribute toward a tasty, healthy and satisfying diet.

Group three: processed foods

Processed foods are made using a mix of group one and two ingredients, in order to extend the life of the food and/or make the food tastier. Usually, these foods have two or three ingredients.

Group three foods are easily recognisable as versions of the original food, because they have been made directly from these foods.

Examples of processed foods:

  • Canned fruit and veg

  • Veg preserved in salt or vinegar (e.g. pickled gherkins)

  • Fruit preserved in sugar syrup (with or without antioxidants)

  • Tomato extract, paste or concentrates

  • Salted or sugared nuts/seeds

  • Canned fish (with or without added preservatives)

  • Salted, smoked or cured whole meats or fish (e.g. parma ham, bacon, smoked salmon)

  • Fresh cheese

  • Tofu

  • Fresh bread made of wheat flour, yeast, water and salt

  • Fermented alcoholic drinks (e.g. beer, cider, wine)

In combination with foods in group one (which should ideally make up most of your plate), processed foods contribute to a healthy diet.

Group four: ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations, made from substances which are:

  • extracted from whole foods, such as oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins

  • derived from food constituents, such as hydrogenated fats and modified starch

  • synthesised in laboratories via chemical reactions using material from plants, such as flavour enhancers, colours, and food additives

They are created using manufacturing (not cooking) techniques like extruding, fractioning, or moulding, from ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a home or restaurant kitchen.

Examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • Branded or sugary breakfast cereal

  • Packaged bread

  • Ready meals

  • Tinned or instant (dehydrated) soups, sauces, etc

  • All fizzy drinks, including diet versions

  • Flavoured crisps

  • Baked products made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, yeast, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives

  • Chocolate and sweets with more than a few ingredients

Watch out: some food can be either minimally processed/processed or ultra-processed depending on how it was made. For example:

  1. Bread: when it’s made from wheat flour, water, salt and yeast it’s categorised as processed, whereas with added emulsifiers and/or colourings it’s ultra-processed

  2. Plain yoghurt: this is minimally processed, but when it contains sugar, sweeteners, preservatives or stabilisers it’s ultra-processed

Ultra-processed foods can be addictive due to the high levels of fat, sugar, salt and chemicals. Higher consumption of ultra-processed foods has been shown to be associated with higher risks of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular diseases. They are associated with reduction in diet quality, increased incidence of obesity, and some cancers. It’s recommended you limit your intake of these foods.

I hope you enjoyed this blog explaining the difference between unprocessed, minimally processed, processed an ultra-processed food! If you have questions or want to learn more, get in contact with me on Instagram or via email




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