December 2, 2023


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Wholesome Meals vs. Extremely Processed Meals: What to Know

Wholesome Meals vs. Extremely Processed Meals: What to Know

You’ve in all probability heard that it’s greatest to cut back your consumption of “extremely processed meals” with a view to dwell your healthiest life.

Whereas that is true, many individuals are confused as to what makes a meals or beverage “extremely processed” and why consuming too a lot of this stuff might trigger issues.

This text explains the variations between wholesome meals and extremely processed meals and why it’s greatest to eat extremely processed meals solely sometimes.

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Pictures from left to proper: Juan Moyano/Stocksy United, The Actual Tokyo Life/Getty Photographs

Practically all meals are processed, no less than to some extent. For instance, producers course of dried beans to make them shelf-stable. This doesn’t make them much less wholesome.

So, earlier than we get into what makes a meals extremely processed, it’s essential to grasp that meals aren’t “unhealthy” simply because they’re processed indirectly.

To make it simpler to grasp meals processing, researchers have separated meals into 4 classes based mostly on the extent of processing.

To do that, they used NOVA, a meals classification system developed by researchers on the College of Sao Paulo, Brazil (1, 2, 3):

  • NOVA Group 1. Minimally processed and unprocessed meals. Greens, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts fall into this class. These meals might have gone by way of roasting, boiling, or pasteurization to extend shelf life or make them fit for human consumption.
  • NOVA Group 2. Processed culinary substances obtained straight from group 1 meals or from nature. This will embody meals reminiscent of olive oil, maple syrup, and salt. Group 2 meals are primarily utilized in preparation and cooking of group 1 meals.
  • NOVA Group 3. Processed meals, together with objects made by including substances like salt, sugar, or different substances from group 2 to group 1 meals. Examples embody recent bread, fruits in syrup, and cheese.
  • NOVA Group 4. Extremely-processed meals. These include little, if any, of the meals or substances from group 1. These things are supposed to be handy, hyper-palatable, and low price and are sometimes excessive in sugars, refined grains, fat, preservatives, and salt.

Extremely-processed, or extremely processed, meals sometimes include substances you wouldn’t use in meals preparation at residence, reminiscent of (4):

  • hydrolyzed proteins
  • modified starches
  • hydrogenated oils
  • colorants
  • flavorings
  • excessive fructose corn syrup
  • synthetic sweeteners
  • bulking brokers

These definitions aren’t good or 100% correct for classifying meals, and consultants admit that there’s appreciable variability in terms of itemizing meals as “extremely processed” in analysis research (4).

For instance, breakfast cereals are thought of extremely processed in lots of research. Nonetheless, healthcare consultants don’t take into account some cereals extremely processed in the event that they include no added sugar and have undergone minimal processing.

That mentioned, this classification system is solely meant to offer a basic thought of what makes a meals extremely processed based mostly on its manufacturing and substances.

Examples of extremely processed meals

Now that you’ve got a basic thought of what makes a meals extremely processed, you’re in all probability questioning which meals and drinks fall into this class.

Listed below are some frequent examples of ultra-processed meals (2):

  • sugary drinks reminiscent of carbonated smooth drinks, sugary espresso drinks, vitality drinks, and fruit punch
  • candy or savory packaged snacks reminiscent of chips and cookies
  • sweetened breakfast cereals reminiscent of Froot Loops, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sweetened oatmeals
  • baking mixes reminiscent of stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes
  • reconstituted meat merchandise reminiscent of scorching canine and fish sticks
  • frozen meals reminiscent of pizza and TV dinners
  • powdered and packaged instantaneous soups
  • candies and different confectionery
  • packaged breads and buns
  • vitality and protein bars and shakes
  • meal alternative shakes and powders meant for weight reduction
  • boxed pasta merchandise
  • ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and cocoa mixes
  • margarine and different ultra-processed spreads reminiscent of sweetened cream cheese

Needless to say this record just isn’t exhaustive. Many different meals and substances are additionally thought of ultra-processed.

It’s not at all times instantly clear whether or not a meals is very processed, which might make it tough for customers to attenuate these merchandise of their weight loss program.

Probably the most dependable method to establish extremely processed meals is to learn the ingredient labels.

Extremely-processed meals have substances like (2):

  • synthetic colorings and flavorings
  • thickeners and preservatives
  • hydrolyzed proteins
  • sweeteners reminiscent of fructose, excessive fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, and maltodextrin
  • hydrogenated or interesterified oils
  • bulking, foaming, and gelling brokers
  • taste enhancers reminiscent of monosodium glutamate (MSG)

The world of meals components might be overwhelming and complicated, and also you may discover it tough to establish all the pieces on ingredient lists.

For those who’re curious about studying extra about meals components and which components producers generally embody in ultra-processed meals, take a look at the United Nations Codex Alimentarius, which retains an up to date record of meals components.


Extremely processed, or ultra-processed, meals include few or no minimally processed or unprocessed substances and are typically greater in energy, salt, fats, and added sugars. Plus, they include components reminiscent of taste enhancers and thickeners.

Basically, recent greens, fruits, pasteurized milk, rooster, fish, beans, and eggs are thought of unprocessed or minimally processed (2).

It is because these meals undergo no or minimal processing before you purchase them or harvest them your self.

We generally refer to those meals as “entire meals” as a result of they’re of their authentic, entire kind or very near it.

Listed below are some examples of wholesome, entire meals:

  • greens and fruits, together with recent, frozen, or unsweetened dried produce
  • grains reminiscent of brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat
  • legumes reminiscent of beans and lentils
  • starchy root greens reminiscent of potatoes, cassava, and candy potatoes
  • meat, poultry, eggs, and fish
  • recent or pasteurized milk and plain yogurt
  • 100% fruit or vegetable juice
  • herbs and spices
  • tea and low
  • nuts and seeds

Gadgets constituted of entire meals — reminiscent of granola made with oats, dried fruit, and no added sugar, or polenta made with entire cornmeal — are additionally thought of minimally processed and due to this fact “wholesome.”

Moreover, some oils, reminiscent of olive oil and avocado oil, are derived from entire meals and are thought of a wholesome alternative.

Utilizing the time period “wholesome” might be problematic at instances as a result of it might probably demonize meals which can be thought of processed.

That’s why, quite than use the phrase “wholesome” to explain a meals, it’s higher to make use of the time period “nutrient-dense.” This refers to meals that pack loads of vitamins per gram.

Basically, minimally processed and unprocessed meals are far more nutrient-dense than ultra-processed meals.

For instance, a do-it-yourself soup made with rooster, greens, brown rice, and broth is probably going far more nutritious than a extremely processed canned or boxed soup combine.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t imply it’s important to utterly keep away from processed and extremely processed meals. It simply implies that most of your weight loss program ought to be composed of entire, nutrient-dense meals.


Complete, nutrient-dense meals are unprocessed or minimally processed. Fruits, greens, nuts, beans, fish, and eggs are only a few examples.

There are a number of variations between minimally processed meals and extremely processed meals. Listed below are a few of the major ones.


Basically, ultra-processed meals are typically a lot greater in energy than entire, minimally processed meals (5).

For instance, a 100-gram serving of potato chips comprises 545 energy, whereas the identical measurement serving of a plain baked potato comprises solely 95 energy. That is due to the processing potato chips endure, together with frying (6, 7).

Nonetheless, this isn’t at all times the case. Some extremely processed meals — reminiscent of these produced by firms advertising to individuals who need to drop extra pounds — could also be low in energy. However this doesn’t routinely make them a wholesome alternative.

While you’re assessing whether or not a meals is wholesome, take into account its whole dietary worth, not simply its calorie rely.

Sugar content material

Candy ultra-processed meals are typically excessive in added sugars.

Extremely-processed meals reminiscent of sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged baked items, and sweetened drinks are designed to be hyper-palatable. Producers obtain this by including sweeteners reminiscent of cane sugar, invert syrup, and excessive fructose corn syrup.

Sadly, many extremely processed, sweetened merchandise are marketed towards youngsters and adolescents.

For instance, Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries, a well-liked cereal amongst youngsters, comprises a whopping 16 grams of added sugar per 1-cup (37-gram) serving. This equates to round 4 teaspoons of added sugar (8).

In distinction, a breakfast of cooked rolled oats with recent berries and pure peanut butter comprises zero grams of added sugar and is a way more nutritious alternative for adults or rising youngsters.

Likewise, vitality drinks, fruit punch, and soda, that are widespread amongst youngsters and adults alike, can include a surprising quantity of sugar. An 8.4-ounce (248-mL) can of the vitality drink Pink Bull comprises 26.6 grams, or 6.24 teaspoons, of sugar (9).

Different variations

Extremely-processed meals are generally decrease in fiber, protein, nutritional vitamins, and minerals and better in salt and fats than entire, nutritious meals.

Nonetheless, once more, this isn’t at all times the case.

Some ultra-processed meals and drinks can include added fibers and protein concentrates, which improve the merchandise’ content material of those vitamins. For instance, weight reduction meal alternative bars and vitality bars might be very excessive in protein and fiber.

Moreover, some extremely processed meals marketed as “weight loss program,” “lite,” or “low fats” might be very low in fats, however this doesn’t essentially imply these merchandise are “wholesome.”

When meals producers take away fats from a product, they generally add sugar to enhance the style. Plus, many ultra-processed meals, reminiscent of weight loss program protein bars and snacks, are excessive in components reminiscent of synthetic sweeteners, colours, flavors, thickeners, and extra.


Extremely-processed meals are typically greater in energy, added sugar, and salt. Plus, they generally include substances reminiscent of taste enhancers, preservatives, and synthetic colours and flavors.

You don’t need to utterly keep away from extremely processed meals to have a nutritious diet general.

Meals is one among life’s major sources of enjoyment. It’s an essential a part of our social lives and our happiness.

It’s completely wholesome to get pleasure from your favourite snack meals or ice cream on occasion, so long as you eat these meals carefully and principally eat entire, minimally processed meals.

That is essential as a result of continuously consuming ultra-processed meals and drinks is prone to hurt general well being and improve illness threat.

Again and again, analysis exhibits that those that observe diets wealthy in entire, nutrient-dense meals dwell longer and have a decrease threat of creating power well being circumstances than individuals who eat diets excessive in ultra-processed meals.

For instance, the Mediterranean dietary sample is related to an extended life expectancy and a decrease threat of coronary heart illness, diabetes, colon most cancers, breast most cancers, and weight problems. This weight loss program prioritizes entire meals, together with (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16):

  • greens
  • legumes
  • fruits
  • fish

Then again, diets excessive in ultra-processed meals reminiscent of quick meals, sweets, and soda have been persistently linked to elevated illness threat and a shorter life expectancy (17, 18, 19).

Thus, in terms of well being outcomes, moderating your consumption of extremely processed meals is essential.


To maintain your self wholesome and scale back your threat of illness, it’s greatest to observe a dietary sample that consists primarily of entire, nutrient-dense meals. Nonetheless, you’ll be able to nonetheless get pleasure from your favourite extremely processed meals sometimes.

There are main variations between extremely processed meals and minimally processed or unprocessed meals.

Extremely processed, or ultra-processed, meals include few or no minimally processed or unprocessed substances and are typically greater in energy, salt, fats, and added sugars. Plus, they usually include components reminiscent of taste enhancers and thickeners.

A wholesome, nutrient-dense weight loss program ought to be low in ultra-processed meals, however that doesn’t imply it’s important to keep away from processed meals utterly.

It’s completely attainable to take care of a balanced, nutritious diet that consists principally of entire meals whereas having fun with your favourite snack meals, candies, and different extremely processed meals once in a while.