What’s on your plate? Long Island Registered Dietitian Explains Moderately Processed and Ultra-processed foods

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As a Registered Dietitian, I work to empower people to feel confident about their choices, selecting the healthiest options and enjoying what they eat. As a continuation from the previous blog, I want to explain moderately processed and ultra-processed foods, how to identify them, and provide guidance for healthy diet planning.

PROCESSING:  Moderately processed and ultra-processed Foods

Moderately processed foods

This group of processed foods include substances extracted and purified from unprocessed or minimally processed foods in order to produce culinary and/or food industry ingredients.  Physical and also chemical processes such as pressure, milling, refining, hydrogenation and hydrolysis, and use of enzymes and additives, are employed. These processes are different from those used to obtain minimally processed foods in that they radically change the nature of the original food.  

Ultra-processed (maximally) foods:

These food products are ready to eat or ready to heat with little or no preparation. They go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, salting, sugaring, baking, frying, deep frying, curing, smoking, pickling, canning), contain many added ingredients (such as sugar, salt, fat, preservatives, cosmetic additives, synthetic vitamins and minerals) and are highly manipulated.  

The industrial processing is designed to create durable, accessible, convenient, and attractive products. They are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration to have a long shelf life, to be transportable for long distances, and to be extremely palatable.  

Substances extracted or refined from whole foods (such as oils, fats, flours, starches, variants of sugar, and cheap parts or remnants of animal foods) or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other sources such as flavor enhancers, colors and food additives are used to make the product hyper-palatable. Basically, they have limited nutritional value and even when you are getting some protein (in those chicken nuggets, for example), you’re also getting ingredients you don’t want along with a lot of calories in exchange for limited satiety.  As such, “ultra-processed” foods tend to be mass produced packaged goods such as sodas, soft drinks, packaged snacks, instant noodles, chicken nuggets, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fries, and so much more.  

This is the category where almost 50% of our calories come from. Most are advertised and sold by large or transnational corporations and are very durable, palatable, and ready to consume, which is an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable whole or minimally processed foods. They’re everywhere, they taste great, and are aggressively marketed to the public. Are they convenient? Oh yes. Are the delicious? Absolutely. Should they make up the bulk of your diet? Definitely not.

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash