High processed food diet – the enemy of your heart

We’ve all heard the name processed foods at least once, and how bad they are for our health. Still, it’s hard to avoid them altogether, especially if you don’t know exactly what it means for a food to be processed.

In this article, we’ll help you understand what exactly processed foods are, and look at extensive studies and their findings to answer one of the most common questions in nutrition – does processed food harm health?

Processed foods – what are they?

Almost all food is processed, at least to some extent. For example, manufacturers will process foods such as dried beans to extend their expiry date when they are on the shelf in shops.

It is important to understand that food is not ‘unhealthy’ just because it is processed in one way or another, but it is the way in which the original products are altered and the degree of processing they have gone through that matters.

To better understand food processing, a group of researchers at the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition in Sao Paolo, Brazil, have separated foods into four categories based on the degree of processing, called the NOVA system:

Group 1: Unprocessed food or minimally processed food

Unprocessed or natural foods are those obtained directly from plants and animals, without being modified in any way from their original form. On the other hand, minimally processed foods are those that have undergone cleaning and removal of unwanted parts, fractionation, grinding, drying, fermentation, pasteurisation, cooling or freezing. An important thing to remember is that minimal processing does NOT add oil, fat, salt, sugar, or other extra substances.

Examples of NOVA Group 1 foods

  • Natural, cut, frozen fruit and vegetables
  • Seeds such as white or brown rice, wheat seeds, corn kernels
  • Natural fruit or vegetable juices with no added sugar
  • Cereal flour, cornflour
  • Pasta, cous cous
  • Eggs
  • Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, beans
  • Dried fruit
  • Unroasted nuts and hazelnuts, without added salt or sugar
  • Fresh or dried herbs (e.g. oregano, pepper, cinnamon)
  • Fresh or dried mushrooms
  • Poultry meat, red meat, fish meat
  • Fresh or pasteurised milk or yoghurt, with no added sugar
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Non-carbonated mineral water
Examples of NOVA Group 1 processed foods

Group 2: Processed ingredients

In this group we find foods extracted from natural ingredients, processed by methods such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverising and refining.

Although foods in this category are considered ‘processed’, they can be safely included in a healthy diet in small quantities.

Examples of NOVA Group 2 foods

  • Seed, nut or fruit oils
  • White sugar, brown sugar, molasses
  • Honey from combs
  • Maple syrup
  • Starches from maize or other plants
  • Butter
  • Refined salt or crystals
  • Any food combining two or more foods in this category (e.g. salted butter)
Examples of NOVA Group 2 processed foods

Group 3: Processed food

Foods in this group are generally produced by adding processed Group 2 ingredients to Group 1 foods.

Examples of Group 3 NOVA foods

  • Canned vegetables, pickles
  • Tomato extract or tomato paste
  • Fruit in sugar syrup
  • Bacon
  • Nuts and sweet or salted seeds
  • Canned fish
  • Dried, smoked or marinated meat
  • Cheeses
  • Fresh bread
  • Fermented alcoholic beverages (e.g. beer, cider, wine)
Examples of NOVA Group 3 processed foods

Group 4: Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made wholly or mostly from Group 2 substances, substances derived from food constituents (e.g. hydrogenated fats and modified starches) or synthesised in laboratories (e.g. flavour enhancers, colours and food additives). Group 1 foods make up a small proportion, or are even missing from ultra-processed products.

Examples of Group 4 NOVA foods

  • Commercial snacks, sweet or salty
  • Biscuits and cookies
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate and candy
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Energising
  • Instant or canned soups
  • Flavoured yoghurts
  • Dairy-based drinks (e.g. chocolate milk)
  • Sweetened juices
  • Margarine
  • Semi-prepared meat or vegetables
  • Pizza
  • Processed meats (e.g. burgers, hot dogs, sausages, salami, chicken nuggets or fish sticks)
  • Bakery products made with ingredients such as hydrogenated vegetable fats, sugar, yeast, whey and other additives.
  • Trimmings, cakes or cake mixes
  • Distilled alcoholic beverages (e.g. whisky, gin, rum, vodka)
Examples of NOVA Group 4 processed foods

Processed food – danger for the body?

It should be noted that these definitions are not perfect or 100% accurate for food classification. The experts themselves acknowledge that there is considerable variability when it comes to classifying foods as “highly processed” in research studies. However, when you read about studies related to processed foods, they will generally refer to those in Group 4 and often Group 3.

What do studies tell us about processed food?

A large analysis of 45 studies on this topic demonstrated that greater exposure to ultra-processed foods is associated with a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, particularly cardiometabolic outcomes, common mental disorders and mortality.

The most compelling evidence was related to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, deaths from cardiovascular causes, and anxiety disorders.

Some of the causes of these harmful effects of ultra-processed foods are thought to be:

  • The high level of sugar, salt and fat in food leads to an increased energy density and caloric intake, resulting in a reduced amount of fiber, protein and micronutrients in the diet
  • Low intakes of bioactive compounds from fruits and vegetables (polyphenols or phytoestrogens)
  • Food reconstitution during processing that can affect digestion, nutrient absorption and satiety
  • Food additives can affect the gut microbiome and result in inflammation
  • Aspartame(artificial sweetener) has recently been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen
  • Ultra-processed foods could be contaminated with other harmful substances from packaging materials (e.g. bisphenols, microplastics, mineral oils and phthalates)

Is it possible to have a diet without processed foods?

As mentioned above, not all processed foods are unhealthy. In general, it’s best to avoid ultra-processed foods, and keep lightly processed foods to a minimum in your daily diet.

The Mediterranean diet is currently considered to be the most heart and health-friendly dietary pattern. It is based on frequent consumption of unprocessed or lightly processed foods (Group 1), reduced consumption of Group 2 foods, and elimination of Group 3 and 4 foods as far as possible.

Dahna comes to your aid in reducing processed foods from your diet!

Unfortunately, nowadays it seems virtually impossible to completely reduce these processed foods from your diet. When you go to the supermarket, you are assailed from all directions by products that are as attractive as possible, but which can have disastrous effects on your health.

Dahna was created with the intention of helping you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease through lifestyle changes, starting with your diet. Thus, in the app you will find detailed food menu recommendations and recipes based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet, requiring unprocessed, cheap and accessible ingredients.

You can also generate a shopping list in the app with exactly what you need, to avoid the temptation of processed food in shops and to eliminate food waste.

Download the app today so you can eat to your heart’s content!

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