Processed Foods 101: What To Know Before Consuming

At least once in your life, you might have heard that in order to live your healthiest life you should count down highly processed foods.

While this can be considered true, many people don’t have an idea about what makes a food or beverage highly processed and why increasing their intake can cause problems.

So let’s see what highly processed ingredients are and what problems they can cause.

What Are Processed Foods?

Processed foods refer to any food item which has been changed from its natural state This can include food that was simply cut, washed, heated, cooked, and canned. It can also include food in which manufacturers have added preservatives to increase their shelf life, and artificial sweeteners and flavors to enhance their taste.

Nearly all foods are processed to some extent. And we need to understand that processing them doesn’t make them unhealthy. 

For example

Dried Beans are processed by manufacturers just to increase the shelf life that doesn’t make them any less healthier. 


To make the concept of food processing more clear and easy to understand, research has divided them into four different groups. These groups are based on the extent of processing. 

To classify the foods better there is a classification method called NOVA which is used to identify the extent of processing done to the food. 

types of processed foods

Using this type of classification the processed food is classified into four groups.

NOVA Group1

This group contains Minimally processed or unprocessed food. Fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts are included in this category. Sometimes these foods are made to go through various steps of processing like boiling, heating or pasteurization.

NOVA Group2

This group contains processed culinary food items obtained directly from nature or from group1. The classification contains food items such as olive oil, maple syrup, salt, etc. Group2 foods are often used in cooking or preparation of foods. 

NOVA Group3

These foods are the actual processed foods. It includes items made by adding foods from Group1 and Group2. Examples include breads, fruit syrups and cheese.

NOVA Group4

This group contains ultra processed foods. These contain zero to no ingredients from group1. The food items in this group are manufactured keep in mind the convenience and low cost. They are typically high in sugars, refined grains, fats, preservatives and salt.

Examples Of Highly Processed Foods

Now that you have understood how these groups are classified, you might probably be wondering which foods and beverages fall into this category.

Here are some of the example of processed foods:

  1. Sugary beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee, fruit punches and energy drinks.
  2. Packaged and canned snacks such as cookies and chips.
  3. Sweetened breakfast cereals such as sweetened oatmeals, fruit loops and cinnamon toast. 
  4. Baking mixes such as cookies, cakes and brownies.
  5. Frozen meals and snacks.
  6. Packaged breads and buns.
  7. Ice cream, sweetened yogurt and chocolate mixes.
  8. Powdered and packaged instant soups.
  9. Candies and other confectionery items.
  10. Protein bars, powders and shakes.

Always remember that this list is just exemplary but the actual number of food items are never ending. Highly processed foods or ultra processed items can be dangerous if consumed in large quantities. 

If the foods contain any of the below mentioned items it means they are highly processed.

  1. Artificial colors and flavorings.
  2. Preservatives and thickeners.
  3. Artificial sweeteners.
  4. Flavor enhancers.

How Do Processed Foods Affect Our Health?

You can consider eating some of the foods which have gone through slight processing in your everyday diets but other highly processed foods can be dangerous for your health.

Binge Eating

You might eat more food than you are aware of because the NOVA Group 4 foods contain a lot of fat, sugar and salt. Due to this it makes them more appealing and you can indulge yourself in eating more and more.

High Risk Of Cancer

Some studies suggest that consuming high amounts of ultra processed foods can increase the risk of cancer. This can be because of the food additives.

Low Nutritional Content

Some processed foods cannot give the body much needed nutrients and vitamins. Many highly processed food items are void of vitamins, minerals and fibers. 

Easy to Digest

These foods are very easy to digest, which means they burn fewer calories which can lead to increased fat in the body. If you eat high amounts of group 3 or 4 foods that require less calories to digest then it can be difficult for you to maintain an ideal weight.

Should You Avoid Processed Foods?

First things first you don’t need to avoid processed foods completely. Anything done in moderation can do us no harm. It is perfectly fine to indulge in your favorite ice cream maybe once a week or on cheat days. But eating such kinds of ultra processed foods largely can pose great risks to our overall health.


There is a big difference between processed food and highly processed foods. Highly processed items are the ones that contain no items from group 1 or 2. Eating those types of foods can pose a risk to your health, It can also affect your fitness journey and imbalance your weight levels.


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