Processed and Ultra-processed: What's the Difference?
Ultra-processed food and processed food are two categories that describe different levels of food processing. While both undergo some form of processing, there are distinct differences between the two.
Processed food generally refers to any food item that has undergone some level of alteration from its natural state. This can include washing, cutting, cooking, canning, freezing, or adding preservatives, colorings, and flavor enhancers.
Examples of processed foods include canned vegetables, frozen dinners, and packaged snacks.
Processing can help improve shelf life, convenience, and taste, but it may also involve the addition of additives or the loss of certain nutrients.
Ultra-processed food, on the other hand, refers to a specific subcategory of processed food that undergoes extensive processing and often contains multiple ingredients and additives. These foods are typically ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that are highly industrialized and designed to be convenient, long-lasting, and hyper-palatable.
The main diffference is the *extent* of alteration from the food's original state; however, ultra-processed food can often not even be derived from a real food to begin with!
Ultra-processed: A lot of weird ingredients that are not real food but mimic it, whereas lighter levels of processing is just to enhance flavour and texture.
Ultra-processed foods often include additives such as artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other chemicals (massively long shelf-life that is just weird).
Examples of ultra-processed foods include sugary drinks, prepackaged snacks, fast food, and certain breakfast cereals.
The key distinction between processed and ultra-processed foods lies in the degree of industrial processing, the number of added ingredients and additives, and the overall nutritional quality.
Ultra-processed foods tend to be highly energy-dense (highly calorie-dense but doesn't fill you up), low in essential nutrients, and will likely contribute to poor dietary habits and potential health risks when consumed excessively.
As well, ultra-processed foods often contain a wide range of chemicals and additives to enhance flavor, texture, appearance, and shelf life.
Here is a list of some commonly added chemicals found in ultra-processed foods:
Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and Neotame are frequently used to provide sweetness without adding calories.
Artificial Colors: Various synthetic colorants such as Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are added to make foods more visually appealing.
Artificial Flavors: Synthetic flavor compounds are used to imitate natural flavors or create new ones. They can be listed as "artificial flavors" on ingredient labels.
Preservatives: Chemical preservatives like BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone), and sodium benzoate are added to extend the shelf life of processed foods.
Flavor Enhancers: Monosodium glutamate (MSG), autolyzed yeast extract, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) are added to enhance the taste of processed foods.
Hydrogenated Oils: Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which are used to enhance flavor and extend shelf life, but they have been linked to various health issues.
I am not as worried about emulsifiers, starches, and texture agents, but still, being aware is key.
It's important to note that while some additives are generally recognized as safe by regulatory authorities, concerns have been raised about the potential health effects of consuming large amounts of ultra-processed foods containing these chemicals.
It is generally recommended to prioritize whole, minimally processed foods and limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods in a balanced diet.