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Whole vs ultra-processed foods

It is recommended that we cap our intake of added and free sugars. But remembering this along with the plethora of other dietary ideas, recommendations and advice, we understand one may feel overwhelmed trying to remember ALL the things we are told we shouldn’t eat, or at least limit, in our daily diet.

If this resonates with you, try this: when trying to make a good and healthy food choice, work towards shifting your dietary mindset from one of restriction to one of inclusion.

What do we mean by this? Read on!

Focus on what you can include
Here at That Sugar Movement, we like to advocate for eating mostly real, whole foods, especially over the heavily processed stuff. This is because generally the latter simply isn’t that good for your health. And it can contain plenty of added sugar!

However, in choosing what to eat, rather than being guided by only what to exclude or restrict, try focusing on what good foods you can include instead.

Delight yourself with what you can enjoy from the wide and wonderful world of whole and minimally processed foods. By doing so, you don’t have to put so much brain power into avoiding the less healthy, heavily processed stuff – you inadvertently crowd it out, and are far less likely to consume too much added sugar. 

But what is a whole food versus heavily or ultra-processed? And what about all that falls in between?

Let’s take a look.

Whole versus processed foods
There are varying degrees of food processing, which is important to understand as the type or amount of processing a food undergoes can determine the taste, texture and nutritional quality of the food. Much food we consume undergoes some form of processing, either at home or by manufacturers. Processing methods include grinding, steaming, chopping, extensive heating, canning, preserving in fat, sugar or salt, hydrogenation, extrusion and more.

Some foods require a degree of processing in order to get to a state where we can consume them. In fact, we have been processing and preparing grains, meats, vegetables and fruits for thousands of years!

Here are some stages of processing to get familiar with.

Unprocessed or whole
Fresh foods or a single ingredient that resembles its original, natural state, either picked from a tree or bush, pulled from the ground, or unprocessed animal meat or eggs. Whole, unprocessed foods are generally higher in quality. The closer to the natural state and the less processed the food is, the more likely it will nourish you and satisfy your hunger.

Methods: None, though a little processing can make a certain food edible and/or safe for consumption, such as cooking some meats (no-one wants raw chicken) or peeling certain fruits. More on this below.

Example: Think whole vegetables, fruit, legumes, mushrooms, eggs, seafood and certain cuts of meat.

Minimally processed
These can be undertaken by a manufacturer, but also in the home – we often peel, cut and cook whole foods for tasty dinner! Often these processes extend the life of the food, can sometimes enhance nutritional quality, and make the food edible by removing shells, skins or toxic parts of plants, or cooking it to make it safe, and enjoyable, to consume. 

Methods: Peeling, cutting, cooking, roasting, fermenting, pasteurising, freezing, pressing, drying, milling and grinding, to name a few.

Example: Think vegetables snap-frozen, pasteurised dairy, whole oats, or dry-roasted nuts. And for when some basic processing enhances the nutrient profile of a whole food, a good example is when tomatoes are cooked with a little extra virgin olive oil. Tomatoes contain the antioxidant lycopene that is said to increase when the tomato is heated and is better absorbed when served with the fat from the oil.

Processed
These are often the trickiest food products to assess for nutritional quality, with some better than others. Generally, processed foods are packaged and comprise more than one ingredient, and most often do not resemble their original form. They have been treated to be shelf-stable, can be high in added sugars, unhealthy oils and artificial stuff, and are usually of reduced nutritional quality compared with whole or minimally processed foods.

Methods: In addition to undertaking much of the above, there is refinement, extraction, sugaring, enzymatic treatment and more.1

Example: Think some canned foods (particularly those with high amounts of added sugar, salt or oils), salted and cured meats, and food products with additives and preservatives.

Ultra-processed
These food products do not serve your health and wellbeing, being nutritionally unbalanced, poor quality and easy to over-consume.

Consider them a formulation rather than a whole food. These products are designed to be convenient (ready-to-consume or ready-to-heat), attractive (hyper-palatable), profitable (low-cost ingredients and long shelf life), and competitive to freshly prepared meals.1-2

A recent study was able to demonstrate that an ultra-processed food diet drives individuals to eat more and therefore gain excess weight. That excess weight can then lead to poor health outcomes, especially when consuming nutritionally devoid foods.3

Some sugary breakfast cereals fall into this category, containing many ingredients alongside heavily processed grains that have been altered into appealing-looking puffs, very far from its original form. However, clever marketing and food additives could have you believing you are consuming something super healthy!

Methods: Hydrogenation, deep-frying, extrusion, includes many additives and ingredients that are artificial or very far removed from their original state, and more.

Example: Think margarine, deep-fried foods, instant soups, soft drinks, reconstituted meat, confectionary, pre-made sugary and salty snacks and many types of added sugars (such as maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup).

A little processing is okay
Most of us will partake in food products that have undergone some processing – cheese, tinned tomatoes, salt or dried spices, for example – and they are especially helpful additions to our meals in our very busy lives. Most of us don’t have the capacity to make something like soy sauce or coconut cream from scratch!

Such products each undergo a level of processing but can be part of a mostly whole food and healthful diet, provided you choose products where you understand all the ingredients on the label, and they don’t contain artificial flavourings, colours, preservatives, or other unhealthful ingredients, including too much added sugar.

Do remember, occasionally having stuff that is more processed isn’t the end of the world. But by choosing to include whole or minimally processed foods most of the time, you are naturally sidestepping the heavily and ultra-processed products (and those sneaky added sugars). Winning.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)

 

References:

  1. Aguayo-Patrón, SV & Calderon de la Barca, AM 2017 “Old Fashioned vs. Ultra-Processed-Based Current Diets: Possible Implication in the Increased Susceptibility to Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac Disease in Childhood”, Foods, vol. 15.
  2. Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB et al. 2016, “NOVA. The star shines bright.” World Nutrition, vol. 7, no. 1-3, pp. 28-38
  3. Hall et al. 2019 “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake”, Cell Metabolism, viewed 23 May 2019 <https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131(19)30248-7>
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