The food industry doesn’t have a strict classification of processed food, and neither do dieticians or medical associations. However, there are some conventional categories that seem to be clear and accessible to society at large.
Here are the main levels of processing:
Minimally Processed Foods
These are foods that get the least amount of intervention from suppliers. They could be picked, sliced, sorted, roasted, or packaged. This doesn’t affect the natural form of a food substance or does so in the slightest manner.
These items often have a limited shelf-life. But, consumers see that as a feature rather than a bug. Fresh foods are an integral part of any healthy diet.
Assorted lettuce packs
Moderately Processed Foods
These foods still don’t contain any extras, especially chemical additives. They only get a physical treatment that extends their shelf-life.
This is often achieved by heating, drying, pasteurization, freezing, juicing, or canning. A huge amount of food that people consume on a daily basis belongs to this category.
Natural pure juice
Frozen peas and carrots
Highly Processed Foods
Here, the food industry does a lot more than pick and pack. An extensive amount of processing goes into making an edible product.
The final packed and sold food is often a combination of various ingredients. The original taste, texture, and smell of the mixed foods should still be discernible, at least to some extent. Additionally, these foods contain minimal amounts of chemical additives.
The manufacturing processes profit more from making these items easy to store and consume. They often pack them in convenient containers, allow them to be stored at room temperature, and extend their longevity.
Adding extra salt, sugar, or fats is a normal part of the process. This enhances the taste and form of the food significantly, and incidentally, extends its shelf-life.
Most of the extra-tasty, crunchy, or ready-to-eat products fall into this category. They’re pretty easy to identify, and here are some of the most popular items:
Sweetened fruit juices
Ultra-processed foods are characterized by being quite different from their natural form. Also, by the huge amount of additives that go into the mix.
Artificial sweeteners, synthetic flavors, preservatives, and bulking agents top the list of chemical food additives. There are plenty more materials that food factories incorporate into these super-processed foods.
The main reason is to make a food product irresistible to the palate. Other causes include improving other aspects of the product, like its smell or consistency.
Moreover, many vegan products can mimic real foods by tossing in some additives. This helps in selling vegan foods to a larger base of consumers.
It’s easy to spot ultra-processed foods from the long list of ingredients on their labels. Here are some examples of these foods: