Unprocessed Food in a Processed World

Eating healthy can be hard when our food choices include so many low nutrient, ultra-processed foods.

More than half of the food Canadians consume is processed. It seems that many people tend to connect processed food with unhealthy food, but should all processed food be avoided?  

“Processed food has been chemically altered from its original form,” explains Holly Freill, Registered Dietitian at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. When looking at processed foods, there are three categories: unprocessed, minimally processed, and ultra-processed foods.

Unprocessed Food

Any food that is unaltered and kept in its original state is considered unprocessed. Even though an item might be mechanically altered, it is still unprocessed. “Take an apple for example, if you mechanically alter it (chew it, cut it, mash it, etc.), it’s still an apple with all the original nutrients and would still be considered unprocessed,” says Freill.

Minimally Processed Food

Food that has undergone a small amount of chemical and mechanical processing is considered minimally processed. Freill uses the example of applesauce or dried apples. “They’ve had the water removed through heating and dehydration and likely the peel has been removed. Many of the benefits of the apple are still present, but some of the beneficial nutrients are lost,” states Freill.

Ultra-Processed Food

Ultra-processed foods have undergone extensive chemical altering. Freill uses the example of apple juice or apple drink. “The apples used to make juice or drink crystals have undergone various processes such as concentration and/or dehydration. Often artificial flavours and colours are added back to the final product and there is very little health benefit of the original apple. This means that we are just left with sugar and some apple flavour. Although it might taste delicious, drinking a glass of juice is nowhere close to eating a whole apple, from a nutrient perspective.”

It’s not always easy to determine how much an item has been altered, even when reading food labels.

“Processed and ultra-processed foods tend to have a lot of additional ingredients, many of which are unknown and uncommon in day-to-day cooking.” A good rule of thumb is to look an ingredient list, and ask yourself if you have these ingredients in your own house.  “I don’t keep jar of hexamethaphosphate in my cupboard, but I do keep a jar of vanilla,” says Freill.

Families should strive to make unprocessed and minimally processed foods the basis of their diet. “Unprocessed foods allow us to achieve higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other important plant compounds from the food we eat,” explains Freill. Since Canada’s Food Guide suggests that most adults should be consuming between 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, a good tip is to include a fruit or vegetable at your three meals and three snacks each day. “Those who get enough fruits and vegetables usually don’t have much room for processed foods in their diet, meaning if you take the time to eat celery and [natural] peanut butter as a snack, you likely aren’t going to have room for a donut too.”

Even though Nutrition Month is coming to an end, a focus on increasing healthy eating habits should continue all year long.

For more information on healthy eating, visit the Dietitians of Canada website at www.dietitians.ca.