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Processed Foods - Did we ever find a definition?

ndj1979ndj1979 Member Posts: 29,148 Member Member Posts: 29,148 Member
I recall a few years back that there was an attempt to define certain foods as "processed" and that eating said foods was not good for weight loss and/or overall health. I don't believe an acceptable definition was ever reached. I believe at one point the term "ultra processed" was being used.

IMO opinion any food can be labeled processed as they all require some form of processing. Take a free range chicken, slaughter it, and then break it down into breasts, thighs, wings, etc, and it has now become "processed;" make a salad with multiple ingredients and it is also processed, and we can go on and on. The thought then that processed foods were "bad" seemed not to be based on logical thinking, because any food could be processed.

FYI - I come from the prospective that no food is "bad" that is part of an overall healthy diet that is meeting macro and micronutrients, and within ones calorie goal for the day.

But would be curious to see if things have changed since the original debate was raging...

So how are processed foods defined, and are they "bad"?
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Replies

  • janejellyrolljanejellyroll Member, Premium Posts: 25,744 Member Member, Premium Posts: 25,744 Member
    I see a variety of approaches.

    There's the "I know it when I see it" approach, in which people will tend to insist that it's just common sense and it obviously includes donuts but excludes tomato paste.

    There's also the "ultra-processed food" approach, which attempts to be more defined and systematic. Here's a paper using that definition: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30744710/

    But yeah, ten different people, usually ten different approaches.
  • ndj1979ndj1979 Member Posts: 29,148 Member Member Posts: 29,148 Member
    ndj1979 wrote: »
    I see a variety of approaches.

    There's the "I know it when I see it" approach, in which people will tend to insist that it's just common sense and it obviously includes donuts but excludes tomato paste.

    There's also the "ultra-processed food" approach, which attempts to be more defined and systematic. Here's a paper using that definition: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30744710/

    But yeah, ten different people, usually ten different approaches.

    from the abstract..

    "A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group, which is to say, either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents)."

    If I recall this seemed to be the general trend where this was going...

    I feel like this is a workable definition. But for me personally, it kind of misses the point. For example, I always have ketchup in my fridge. It has high fructose corn syrup because I'm a traditionalist in some ways and if I have ketchup, I want it to taste like the ketchup I ate as a little kid.

    But I go through maybe two bottles a year and most of that is a tablespoon or two at a time. So I don't see avoiding it as a priority for me. And if I wanted to eat more, flipping the bottle and looking at the calories relative to the nutrients would be enough to convince me that I don't want to smother my food in it. The strawberry jam I eat is not ultra-processed, but I intentionally limit to a tablespoon or two at a time for the same reason as the ketchup.

    For me personally, looking at nutrient density plus calories seems to make processing irrelevant. I'm not going to be dogmatic and say it wouldn't be useful for someone else, but I've found that when I use my default framework, my high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil consumption seems pretty limited anyway and I don't see the value of totally eliminating them.

    Right, well that comes back to the whole "adding ingredients" makes something processed and/or bad. I can make a lean hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, and if I add ketchup it all of a sudden becomes bad for me because of the tiny amount of ketchup?

    I also recall some stating that anything with more than three ingredients was processed, or some ridiculousness along those lines...
  • ccrdragonccrdragon Member Posts: 2,981 Member Member Posts: 2,981 Member
    ndj1979 wrote: »
    ndj1979 wrote: »
    I see a variety of approaches.

    There's the "I know it when I see it" approach, in which people will tend to insist that it's just common sense and it obviously includes donuts but excludes tomato paste.

    There's also the "ultra-processed food" approach, which attempts to be more defined and systematic. Here's a paper using that definition: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30744710/

    But yeah, ten different people, usually ten different approaches.

    from the abstract..

    "A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group, which is to say, either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents)."

    If I recall this seemed to be the general trend where this was going...

    I feel like this is a workable definition. But for me personally, it kind of misses the point. For example, I always have ketchup in my fridge. It has high fructose corn syrup because I'm a traditionalist in some ways and if I have ketchup, I want it to taste like the ketchup I ate as a little kid.

    But I go through maybe two bottles a year and most of that is a tablespoon or two at a time. So I don't see avoiding it as a priority for me. And if I wanted to eat more, flipping the bottle and looking at the calories relative to the nutrients would be enough to convince me that I don't want to smother my food in it. The strawberry jam I eat is not ultra-processed, but I intentionally limit to a tablespoon or two at a time for the same reason as the ketchup.

    For me personally, looking at nutrient density plus calories seems to make processing irrelevant. I'm not going to be dogmatic and say it wouldn't be useful for someone else, but I've found that when I use my default framework, my high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil consumption seems pretty limited anyway and I don't see the value of totally eliminating them.

    Right, well that comes back to the whole "adding ingredients" makes something processed and/or bad. I can make a lean hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, and if I add ketchup it all of a sudden becomes bad for me because of the tiny amount of ketchup?

    I also recall some stating that anything with more than three ingredients was processed, or some ridiculousness along those lines...

    ^^ I love this definition of processed foods, where having some arbitrary number of ingredients somehow makes the food 'bad'.

    So basically if I buy a pre-packed salad that contains only lettuce, carrots and radishes it is good for me, but if those sneaky vicious 'big food' people put spinach or cabbage or some other vegetable into that same salad, it is now BAD!! (because we exceeded the arbitrary number of ingredients). The same argument applies to something like pasta sauce - if I make a pasta sauce from scratch at home with a list of 10 ingredients it is good, but if I buy a pasta sauce that has nothing in it except the same 10 ingredients, it is somehow bad????

    I CAN get behind the definition given earlier tho about ingredients that wouldn't normally be found in a home cook's kitchen.
  • goal06082021goal06082021 Member Posts: 1,106 Member Member Posts: 1,106 Member
    I don't think you'll find a true consensus on what constitutes either "processed" or "bad" food, but here's my 2 cents...

    There are degrees of processing. I think what most people are thinking of when they say "avoid processed foods" are things with little in the way of micronutrients, a lot of filler, and that are many steps removed from the ingredients used to create them. The more steps there are between a given ingredient and the consumer, the more highly processed a food is. If you're the sort of person that wants simple overarching rules to help you make better food choices, you could do worse than "less processed = more better."

    Unprocessed: Wild-grown fruit you pick off the tree/bush in your own backyard and eat right then and there. Fish or wild game that you catch with your hands and eat raw and wriggling, like some kind of 800-year-old proto-hobbit.
    Minimally processed: Farmed produce purchased at a farmer's market/roadside stand/pick-your-own; packaged whole raw produce at the grocery store. Free-range/heirloom livestock, butchered by hand.
    Mildly processed: Frozen produce, juices, dried produce (including brown rice, lentils, beans and the like), pickles, jams/jellies/preserves. Industrially-butchered and packaged cuts of meat or whole poultry. The line for me is "can I still tell what this is made of originally, just by looking at it?"
    Processed: Flour and white rice. Canned goods like vegetables, pasta sauce. Dry pasta. Meat that has been ground or preserved in some way (cured, like jerky or chorizo; canned, like tuna or Vienna sausages).
    Very processed: Baked goods, including cookies and crackers. "Mechanically separated" meat products, like Spam, bologna, boneless chicken/turkey roasts. Ice cream.
    Extremely processed: "Kid food" - chicken nuggets, fruit snacks, individually-packaged fluorescent yogurt. Frozen foods (your Hungry Man, Kid Cuisine, Lean Cuisine, Marie Callender's, Stouffer's, Hot Pockets, Toaster Strudels, etc). Things that have been fully cooked, possibly involving multiple cooking techniques (especially frying), then frozen, and all that remains for the consumer to do is heat and eat.

    None of these things are inherently bad, and you could gain or lose weight eating foods from any of those categories exclusively if you ate too much or too little of them, respectively. Are there choices you could make that would give you certain outcomes in terms of nutrient profile, absolutely, but which of those outcomes is "better" is going to be down to the individual and their specific needs and goals.
  • lemurcat2lemurcat2 Member Posts: 7,311 Member Member Posts: 7,311 Member
    I think processed means processed, and like the OP said, I think most anything is processed, especially since cooking it is a form of processing. Judging foods by the amount of processing seems unrelated to any rational aims.

    When reading anti processed food articles or posts, I think the issue is specific types of processing:

    (1) Adding sugar, fat, or salt, so that the food is higher cal or less healthy for at least some;
    (2) Removing nutrients or qualities that make the foods less filling or easier to eat quickly (so refining for grain-based products, removing fiber, other such things);
    (3) Premade meals that are less nutritious than one might make at home (although obviously this depends on what is in the meal vs. what one makes at home) -- I'd use the example of ordering fast food or a TV dinner that lacks any significant amount of veg, and is also why some people have claimed that certain fast food items are "processed" and some not; and
    (4) Perhaps most controversial, the idea that certain additives are to be avoided -- this is especially problematic when some see a long list of additives or additives that they do not recognize as inherently bad when often if you actually know what they are they are vitamins or other innocuous ingredients.

    I think this list identifies things that people should be aware of in the foods they eat, but I don't think it makes any sense to go from this to "processed foods are bad" or even "ultra processed foods are bad," especially since the above doesn't even apply to all commonly defined processed foods (for example, Fage 1% plain greek yogurt), and you can make foods at home that share in the supposedly problematic aspects.

    Instead, I think it simply suggests some things to look out for in evaluating the nutritionary benefits of specific foods (i.e., I add butter, sugar, and refined flour to cookies I make at home too, so does it matter that many would consider them somehow less processed than a purchased cookie?), and therefore to evaluate what percentage of one's diet they should make up. (Similar to the ketchup example, sriracha is processed and contains sugar, but it's not like I consume enough that the amount of sugar is ever a concern.)
    edited February 10
  • Speakeasy76Speakeasy76 Member Posts: 659 Member Member Posts: 659 Member
    For me, I look at a list of ingredients, and if it has "refined," of something or a lot of artificial ingredients, it's more processed than others and those are the ones I used to try to avoid. I've lightened up on that, though, so hopefully I'm not increasing my risk of cancer or inflammatory diseases!

    Honestly, probably about 1/2 of my daily intake (at least) is "processed" foods with different kinds of weird ingredients. I will try to by stuff that has less (or no) weird-sounding ingredients...IF I don't find a difference in their taste. For example, I'll buy Chobani or Fage plain yogurt over Oikos not only because Oikos has more added ingredients, and honestly I think the other brands taste better. However, I tried buying a brand of cottage cheese that didn't have carageenan in it, and it didn't taste as good as the kind that did, so I went back to buying the store brand.
  • ndj1979ndj1979 Member Posts: 29,148 Member Member Posts: 29,148 Member
    lemurcat2 wrote: »
    I think processed means processed, and like the OP said, I think most anything is processed, especially since cooking it is a form of processing. Judging foods by the amount of processing seems unrelated to any rational aims.

    When reading anti processed food articles or posts, I think the issue is specific types of processing:

    (1) Adding sugar, fat, or salt, so that the food is higher cal or less healthy for at least some;
    (2) Removing nutrients or qualities that make the foods less filling or easier to eat quickly (so refining for grain-based products, removing fiber, other such things);
    (3) Premade meals that are less nutritious than one might make at home (although obviously this depends on what is in the meal vs. what one makes at home) -- I'd use the example of ordering fast food or a TV dinner that lacks any significant amount of veg, and is also why some people have claimed that certain fast food items are "processed" and some not; and
    (4) Perhaps most controversial, the idea that certain additives are to be avoided -- this is especially problematic when some see a long list of additives or additives that they do not recognize as inherently bad when often if you actually know what they are they are vitamins or other innocuous ingredients.

    I think this list identifies things that people should be aware of in the foods they eat, but I don't think it makes any sense to go from this to "processed foods are bad" or even "ultra processed foods are bad," especially since the above doesn't even apply to all commonly defined processed foods (for example, Fage 1% plain greek yogurt), and you can make foods at home that share in the supposedly problematic aspects.

    Instead, I think it simply suggests some things to look out for in evaluating the nutritionary benefits of specific foods (i.e., I add butter, sugar, and refined flour to cookies I make at home too, so does it matter that many would consider them somehow less processed than a purchased cookie?), and therefore to evaluate what percentage of one's diet they should make up. (Similar to the ketchup example, sriracha is processed and contains sugar, but it's not like I consume enough that the amount of sugar is ever a concern.)

    I agree with the four point breakdown.

    What gets me is the whole one meal of processed foods i.e. McDonalds ruins your intake for that day. As long as one is hitting micros/macros and is in calorie target, what difference does it make. The McDonalds diet guy ate all McDonalds and was able to have better blood work, and lost weight.

  • AnnPT77AnnPT77 Member, Premium Posts: 20,354 Member Member, Premium Posts: 20,354 Member
    lemurcat2 wrote: »
    I think processed means processed, and like the OP said, I think most anything is processed, especially since cooking it is a form of processing. Judging foods by the amount of processing seems unrelated to any rational aims.

    When reading anti processed food articles or posts, I think the issue is specific types of processing:

    (1) Adding sugar, fat, or salt, so that the food is higher cal or less healthy for at least some;
    (2) Removing nutrients or qualities that make the foods less filling or easier to eat quickly (so refining for grain-based products, removing fiber, other such things);
    (3) Premade meals that are less nutritious than one might make at home (although obviously this depends on what is in the meal vs. what one makes at home) -- I'd use the example of ordering fast food or a TV dinner that lacks any significant amount of veg, and is also why some people have claimed that certain fast food items are "processed" and some not; and
    (4) Perhaps most controversial, the idea that certain additives are to be avoided -- this is especially problematic when some see a long list of additives or additives that they do not recognize as inherently bad when often if you actually know what they are they are vitamins or other innocuous ingredients.

    I think this list identifies things that people should be aware of in the foods they eat, but I don't think it makes any sense to go from this to "processed foods are bad" or even "ultra processed foods are bad," especially since the above doesn't even apply to all commonly defined processed foods (for example, Fage 1% plain greek yogurt), and you can make foods at home that share in the supposedly problematic aspects.

    Instead, I think it simply suggests some things to look out for in evaluating the nutritionary benefits of specific foods (i.e., I add butter, sugar, and refined flour to cookies I make at home too, so does it matter that many would consider them somehow less processed than a purchased cookie?), and therefore to evaluate what percentage of one's diet they should make up. (Similar to the ketchup example, sriracha is processed and contains sugar, but it's not like I consume enough that the amount of sugar is ever a concern.)

    As usual, I think Lemur's analysis is very sensible, too.

    I don't demonize individual foods, thinking instead that it's overall nutrition that matters, but for my own eating I'm more skeptical of:
    * the food products with lots of things removed (nutrients, but also other "refinement" to remove things)
    * as a special case of that, foods/supplements that are pretty much a bunch of things reduced/refined down to the known/speculated nutraceutical compounds alone (superfood powders and what-not)
    * completely lab-manufactured food products

    I don't think those are major evil, or poisonous or anything, but (1) experience suggests they often fail a tastiness/satisfaction test for me personally, so I'm skeptical; and (2) humans have thrived for millennia eating regular food, and I'm not convinced we've yet identified all of the beneficial/essential components that come along with those foods.

    Preferring to eat mostly regular traditional foods, for me, is a good bet-hedge. As a bonus, I like them.

    Advice to other people would be just to get good overall nutrition, at reasonable calories, eating food the person finds filling, tasty, practical, and so forth. "Processed" is mostly a red herring, an unproductive tangent, IMO.
  • lemurcat2lemurcat2 Member Posts: 7,311 Member Member Posts: 7,311 Member
    ndj1979 wrote: »
    lemurcat2 wrote: »
    I think processed means processed, and like the OP said, I think most anything is processed, especially since cooking it is a form of processing. Judging foods by the amount of processing seems unrelated to any rational aims.

    When reading anti processed food articles or posts, I think the issue is specific types of processing:

    (1) Adding sugar, fat, or salt, so that the food is higher cal or less healthy for at least some;
    (2) Removing nutrients or qualities that make the foods less filling or easier to eat quickly (so refining for grain-based products, removing fiber, other such things);
    (3) Premade meals that are less nutritious than one might make at home (although obviously this depends on what is in the meal vs. what one makes at home) -- I'd use the example of ordering fast food or a TV dinner that lacks any significant amount of veg, and is also why some people have claimed that certain fast food items are "processed" and some not; and
    (4) Perhaps most controversial, the idea that certain additives are to be avoided -- this is especially problematic when some see a long list of additives or additives that they do not recognize as inherently bad when often if you actually know what they are they are vitamins or other innocuous ingredients.

    I think this list identifies things that people should be aware of in the foods they eat, but I don't think it makes any sense to go from this to "processed foods are bad" or even "ultra processed foods are bad," especially since the above doesn't even apply to all commonly defined processed foods (for example, Fage 1% plain greek yogurt), and you can make foods at home that share in the supposedly problematic aspects.

    Instead, I think it simply suggests some things to look out for in evaluating the nutritionary benefits of specific foods (i.e., I add butter, sugar, and refined flour to cookies I make at home too, so does it matter that many would consider them somehow less processed than a purchased cookie?), and therefore to evaluate what percentage of one's diet they should make up. (Similar to the ketchup example, sriracha is processed and contains sugar, but it's not like I consume enough that the amount of sugar is ever a concern.)

    I agree with the four point breakdown.

    What gets me is the whole one meal of processed foods i.e. McDonalds ruins your intake for that day. As long as one is hitting micros/macros and is in calorie target, what difference does it make. The McDonalds diet guy ate all McDonalds and was able to have better blood work, and lost weight.

    Yeah, agree. For many who are overweight or especially obese, losing weight will improve health, period. If one does that eating McD's, and also getting sufficient vitamins and minerals, great (I think the McD's guy took supplements).

    And McD's isn't problematic because it's processed. Similar burgers and fries cooked at home with the same cals would be, well, the same. Other, more esteemed restaurants (that I like better) will do a burger and fries that are actually more problematic (although less condemned), since much higher cal. McD's is IMO problematic if consumed too frequently because the cals in the average meal ordered is high, most don't log or count cals, and you get almost no veg. If people would focus more on what to include to have a balanced, nutritionally sufficient diet and less on bad foods vs good foods (or weird ideas about processing!), I think we'd be better off.

    There's a poster here who goes on about processed foods being bad yet posts about eating lots of McD's (eggs and burger patties) who I think is being silly about the processed thing, yet has a point that eggs and burgers are eggs and burgers. It's just the same is true more broadly re so called processed foods or bad foods (and carbs aren't actually evil, that too).

    I won't get started on the posters who claim protein powder is amazing but processed foods bad, will leave that to Ann. ;-)
  • lemurcat2lemurcat2 Member Posts: 7,311 Member Member Posts: 7,311 Member
    AnnPT77 wrote: »
    lemurcat2 wrote: »
    I think processed means processed, and like the OP said, I think most anything is processed, especially since cooking it is a form of processing. Judging foods by the amount of processing seems unrelated to any rational aims.

    When reading anti processed food articles or posts, I think the issue is specific types of processing:

    (1) Adding sugar, fat, or salt, so that the food is higher cal or less healthy for at least some;
    (2) Removing nutrients or qualities that make the foods less filling or easier to eat quickly (so refining for grain-based products, removing fiber, other such things);
    (3) Premade meals that are less nutritious than one might make at home (although obviously this depends on what is in the meal vs. what one makes at home) -- I'd use the example of ordering fast food or a TV dinner that lacks any significant amount of veg, and is also why some people have claimed that certain fast food items are "processed" and some not; and
    (4) Perhaps most controversial, the idea that certain additives are to be avoided -- this is especially problematic when some see a long list of additives or additives that they do not recognize as inherently bad when often if you actually know what they are they are vitamins or other innocuous ingredients.

    I think this list identifies things that people should be aware of in the foods they eat, but I don't think it makes any sense to go from this to "processed foods are bad" or even "ultra processed foods are bad," especially since the above doesn't even apply to all commonly defined processed foods (for example, Fage 1% plain greek yogurt), and you can make foods at home that share in the supposedly problematic aspects.

    Instead, I think it simply suggests some things to look out for in evaluating the nutritionary benefits of specific foods (i.e., I add butter, sugar, and refined flour to cookies I make at home too, so does it matter that many would consider them somehow less processed than a purchased cookie?), and therefore to evaluate what percentage of one's diet they should make up. (Similar to the ketchup example, sriracha is processed and contains sugar, but it's not like I consume enough that the amount of sugar is ever a concern.)

    As usual, I think Lemur's analysis is very sensible, too.

    I don't demonize individual foods, thinking instead that it's overall nutrition that matters, but for my own eating I'm more skeptical of:
    * the food products with lots of things removed (nutrients, but also other "refinement" to remove things)
    * as a special case of that, foods/supplements that are pretty much a bunch of things reduced/refined down to the known/speculated nutraceutical compounds alone (superfood powders and what-not)
    * completely lab-manufactured food products

    I don't think those are major evil, or poisonous or anything, but (1) experience suggests they often fail a tastiness/satisfaction test for me personally, so I'm skeptical; and (2) humans have thrived for millennia eating regular food, and I'm not convinced we've yet identified all of the beneficial/essential components that come along with those foods.

    Preferring to eat mostly regular traditional foods, for me, is a good bet-hedge. As a bonus, I like them.

    Advice to other people would be just to get good overall nutrition, at reasonable calories, eating food the person finds filling, tasty, practical, and so forth. "Processed" is mostly a red herring, an unproductive tangent, IMO.

    Yeah, as usual we agree, and I think I generally share your prejudices/instincts about these things without thinking I should push them on others. I like to cook, and so personally find it easier to focus more on whole ingredients, suspect in many cases (like veg) there are unidentified pluses, and also find that way of eating tastier and more satisfying.But the idea that "processed foods" = the devil or more than X number of ingredients or some things I don't recognize means something is a bad food (when I could just look it up) seems silly to me.

    Plus I like cooking with lots of ingredients often enough!
  • snowflake954snowflake954 Member Posts: 6,546 Member Member Posts: 6,546 Member
    Is washing a fruit or vegetable before eating a process?
    Also, just like to answer the OP's question. I have seen "eating healthy" taking over the processed food spiel. It's like paelo moved into keto. Things keep morphing. Sort of like COVID.
  • ndj1979ndj1979 Member Posts: 29,148 Member Member Posts: 29,148 Member
    Is washing a fruit or vegetable before eating a process?
    Also, just like to answer the OP's question. I have seen "eating healthy" taking over the processed food spiel. It's like paelo moved into keto. Things keep morphing. Sort of like COVID.

    No that would be making your food clean ...🤯🤯
  • ndj1979ndj1979 Member Posts: 29,148 Member Member Posts: 29,148 Member
    ninerbuff wrote: »
    IMO, if you aren't growing your own food (meat, fruits and vegetables) and drinking your own rain water, it's "processed" one way or the other.
    What usually gets me about "unprocessed" foodies is some of the elitest snoot you get from them when talking about food, then come to find out they really have no idea about how digestion actually works.

    A.C.E. Certified Personal and Group Fitness Trainer
    IDEA Fitness member
    Kickboxing Certified Instructor
    Been in fitness for 30 years and have studied kinesiology and nutrition

    9285851.png

    Right..like if you kill a chicken, bleed it and break it down, it is then processed...
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