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Whole vs ultra-processed foods

In choosing what to eat to support health, we are often guided by what to exclude or restrict. The problem is, there are so many dietary ideas, recommendations and advice out there, collectively all the counting and restrictions can feel overwhelming.
We suggest a simpler approach to healthy eating: focus instead on what foods to include. These are the whole and minimally processed foods that we know are beneficial to health.

By focusing on the whole and minimally processed foods you can include at each meal, there is less need to put much brain power into avoiding less healthy and heavily processed products. You inadvertently crowd these out and, as a bonus, less likely to consume too much added sugar and other unhealthful ingredients. 

To do this, it is important to understand the difference between whole foods and those that are heavily or ultra-processed.

Here we break it down for you. 

Whole versus ultra-processed foods
Most foods we eat have undergone some kind of processing. We often peel, cut and cook whole foods for a tasty dinner! Some foods require it to be safer to consume. In fact, we have been processing and preparing grains, meats, vegetables and fruits for thousands of years! 
Important to understand are the stages of food processing. The type or amount of processing a food undergoes can determine the taste, texture and nutritional quality of the food. 
Processing methods, used either at home or by food manufacturers, include grinding, steaming, chopping, extensive heating, canning, preserving in fat, sugar or salt, hydrogenation, extrusion and more.

To help you work toward including more whole or minimally processed foods in your daily diet, here are some stages of processing to get familiar with, according to the NOVA classification system.

Unprocessed (whole) and minimally processed
Whole or unprocessed foods are fresh foods or a single ingredient that resembles its original, natural state. They are generally higher in quality and the closer to its natural state, the more likely the food will nourish you and satisfy your hunger.

Minimally processed foods can be undertaken by a manufacturer or in the home. These processes can extend the life of the food, sometimes enhance nutritional quality, or make the food edible by removing shells, skins or toxic parts of plants, and make certain foods safe and enjoyable to consume. 

Methods: None or some processing such as non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurisation, refrigerating, freezing, roasting, pressing, drying, milling, grinding, and removal of inedible parts, to name a few.

Example: Think whole vegetables, fruit, legumes, mushrooms, eggs, seafood and certain cuts of meat, as well as herbs and spices (fresh or dried), vegetables snap-frozen, pasteurised yoghurt, whole oats and whole grain flours, and nuts and seeds. 

Processed culinary ingredients
These are substances obtained directly from nature or whole foods that undergo some industrial processing to obtain, make useful to the home cook, or prolong shelf-life. Their use is in the preparation, seasoning and cooking of whole or minimally processed foods. 

Methods: Pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting or mining.

Example: Think extra-virgin olive oil, butter and salt (each without additives).

Processed
According to the NOVA classification system, processed foods are whole foods that have added sugar, oil or salt and have undergone certain processes to extend their durability or enhance taste or smell.

Often packaged, processed foods comprise two or three ingredients.

Methods: Preservation and various cooking methods, canning and bottling, and non-alcoholic fermentation.

Example: Think canned foods (particularly those with high amounts of added sugar, salt or oils) including vegetables, fruits and fish, as well as salted and cured meats, cheeses and freshly made bread.

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

They 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.

UPFs are also cleverly and aggressively marketed and often contain certain food additives that, combined, mislead the public into believing they are consuming something super healthy!

Consider UPFs a formulation rather than a whole food. They include at least one substance never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing. 

Worryingly, such foods are harmful when eaten in excess and/or when they displace consumption of whole or minimally processed foods. 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.

Methods: Industrial processing techniques including hydrogenation, moulding, pre-frying, deep-frying, extrusion. 

Include the use of added sugar, oils and fats, and salt (in combination), and additives and ingredients that are artificial or far removed from their original state, such as flavours and flavour enhancers, colours, anti-foaming and anti-caking agents, emulsifiers, thickeners and more, often used to make the product palatable.

Also use modified sugars, fats and proteins, made by industrially processing whole foods into substances such as sweeteners including maltodextrin, fruit-juice concentrates and high-fructose corn syrup; hydrogenated oils; and hydrolysed proteins such as gluten, casein, and whey.  

Example: Think margarine, instant soups and sauces, soft drinks, reconstituted meat products (such as nuggets, fish fingers and sausages), shakes and powders, mass-produced bread, pastries, biscuits, breakfast cereals, confectionary, pre-made sugary and salty snacks, many types of added sugars, and more. See here for a more comprehensive list. 

A little processing is okay

Generally, the more processed a food is, the less nutritious it is and more likely it will contain added sugars and other ingredients not beneficial to health.

Healthy dietary patterns from around the world have a foundation of whole or minimally processed foods, with the addition of processed culinary ingredients, such as extra-virgin olive oil, butter or salt. A good and straightforward example to follow!

To compliment or complete meals, most of us will use food products that fall under the ‘processed’ category, such as cheese or tinned tomatoes. (And thank goodness we have them available. In our busy lives, most of us don’t have the capacity to catch and tin sardines or make coconut cream from scratch!)

This is fine 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 or sweeteners.

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 ultra-processed products (and those sneaky added sugars). Winning.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med.)

 

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