What's the Difference Between - Processed vs Unprocessed Foods


Foods that have been changed prior to consumption are processed foods. Anytime we cook, bake or prepare food we are processing food. So essentially, most of the foods we eat are processed in some way. They may be either trimmed, cooked, fermented, diced, canned, frozen, jarred or packaged. Even foods that have been fortified or to which preservatives are added to increase shelf life, are processed foods.


Processing changes food from its natural state, essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. However, there are degrees of processing which decide if a food is good or harmful to health. It is important to understand degrees of advantageous and non-advantageous processing.


Advantageous Processing

Processing to help make nutrients more easily available to humans or generally contribute to improved nutrition and good health are advantageous processing. For example, quality convenience foods like pre-cut vegetables and meat; foods that are usually processed to kill harmful bacteria or other microorganisms, to make them safer and for longer shelf life. For example packaged milk.


Non-Advantageous Processing

When foods with a poor nutritive composition are made more appealing to buyers, by adding artificial flavours, colours, preservatives or adding ingredients to enhance their taste, they are non advantageous forms of processing. This is because these ingredients may be harmful to human health. For example, all sugary, salty and fried foods like chips, chocolates, cakes, cookies, aerated drinks, etc.


Eating processed foods in moderation is fine, but many may contain high amounts of added sugar, sodium, fat and other chemical additives. These foods are known as ultra processed foods.


Ultra-processed foods

These include foods that go above and beyond in their addition of salt, sweeteners, fat, flavours, or preservatives. These might be added to boost shelf stability, preserve texture, and make the food tastier. Sometimes these are foods that are so processed that they don't even resemble any kind of whole food. Processed foods are usually ready-to-eat and require no further preparation. They are often low in fibre and nutrients. Examples include packaged cookies, some chips and sugary breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners, and lunch meat, etc.


Harmful Effects of Processed Foods:

  • They are usually loaded with added sugar. Sugar is just empty calories and can have devastating effects on health if consumed in excess.

  • They are engineered to be hyper rewarding to our taste buds and can also lead to overconsumption and addictive eating.

  • They can be loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavourings, texturants, colourants and preservatives. Although these may have been tested for safety, overconsumption can be harmful to health.

  • Processed foods use refined carbohydrates also known as simple carbs. They can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This can cause negative health effects.

  • The nutrient and fibre content in processed foods is very poor.

  • Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats (trans fats). When people consume more of these, it is known to increase risk of heart ailments and can even lead to death.

Unprocessed [or minimally processed] Foods

They are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. While some processed foods should be consumed less often, many can be actually called unprocessed because they have a place in a balanced diet. Whole foods, like fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, have likely been cleaned, trimmed, shelled, husked, ground, or wrapped before they make their way into our grocery cart. Though they are technically processed, the processing is minimal and they are definitely good to be consumed.


These foods are consumed in their natural, or nearly natural, state. They may be minimally altered by the removal of inedible parts, or by drying, crushing, roasting, boiling, freezing, or pasteurising them to make them suitable to store and safe to consume. Examples of unprocessed and minimally processed foods are fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables, raw chicken, fish and whole cuts of red meats, eggs and some dairy products.


When buying processed foods that are packaged, it is important to form the habit of always reading the food labels on the package you wish to buy. Front labels try to lure you into purchasing products by making health claims. However, some of these labels are completely misleading. Always check the ingredient and nutrition label on the back of the packaging. Ensure the sodium, sugars and fats do not exceed your daily limits.


Note: It is important to understand that while home-cooked food may be called unprocessed, how we cook food also matters. whether in the oven or on the stovetop. If we slather it in highly processed vegetable oil, it won’t count as unprocessed.

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