The NOVA classification for processed vs ultra-processed foods is a helpful framework. My bias is that the food industry actually loves the term “processed food”. Its goal is to make sure that everything, with the exception of a vegetable, is called processed food. That leads to confusion for the consumer who gives up and buys the most processed junk possible. I honestly believe that big food is hoping we all give up and just eat whatever junk they send to us. Let’s be honest, practically no one is going to go on to a whole food, plant-based diet. Even vegans eat some of the worst possible low-quality carb-loaded foods full of chemicals.
The challenge is that, within categories of food, we find highly-processed and less highly-processed foods. For example:
- In the category of bread, I can find bread that has 4 items in it. And I can find bread that has 10 or 11 items in them. And we’re not just talking about wheat vs. white bread. If you look in the bread aisle for wheat bread there is probably only one wheat bread that is based on simple ingredients. And it won’t be from a brand you recognize. If you look at the ingredients in some of the “freshly-made bread” in grocery stores, you’ll be amazed at how many ingredients there are in 90% of them.
- Everyone loves to pick on potato chips, but every potato chip you’ll ever find probably only has three items. Potatoes, oil, and salt. But then, if you look for a potato chip that has anything added to it (flavor-wise), you’ll be surprised that suddenly the ingredient list explodes. The same thing happens with rice cakes, which go from basically being brown rice to becoming a concoction full of junk.
- Compare ice creams with 4 ingredients (milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla) to every other ice cream out there. Don’t look at “frozen yogurt.” It’s basically modified milk with chemicals to make it into a gel at moderately cold temperatures. Ditto any equivalent that isn’t very cold ice cream.
- For folks who like wheat, pretzels also come in different versions. Some are incredibly simple, but others seem to enjoy adding fat and others add sugar – neither of which are really necessary to the pretzel.
- Certainly, all candy belongs in the category of junk food. But, to me, the problem with candy is not just the fact that it is high in sugar and fat. If you look at any candy, you’ll be shocked at the number of chemicals in them. Pure, sugar-based candies are probably the healthier ones as the only unhealthy thing in many of them is food coloring. Beware lactose intolerant people out there. The food industry has decided that lactose is a great sugar to replace all the high fructose corn syrup they used to put in there. I don’t know why, but somehow it must be cheaper than other forms of sugar.
- If you look at granola you’ll find a wide variety of the ingredients in granola from “what the heck is that doing in there” to “this sounds relatively healthy although it’s fairly high in sugar.” I personally have given up and I take my own oats and cook them in the oven at 325F for 15 minutes. Although you can find some granola that has few ingredients, most of them still include a ton of sugar.
- Some frozen potatoes are mostly just potatoes, but many have extra stuff. Thankfully, frozen fruit and non-potato veggies are mostly that. But, beware of any “new” frozen vegetable solution.
Like I said, the desire is to confuse the consumer so they give up and buy Doritos and a 1/2 gallon of soda. Marketers could be designing new electric storage or windmills. Instead, all their brainpower goes into how to sell more product and enhance profits. Don’t underestimate the effort and creativity they put into achieving their goal.
So, not to throw a wrench in this whole topic, but the reality is that so-called categories of foods vary so much that I’m not sure that it’s a valuable concept to be trying to convey to folks in terms of achieving health impact. Reading ingredient lists is far more helpful in making a rational food choice if one is unwilling to only eat whole foods (e.g., items with only one ingredient).
I fear that people basically give up and go to the cake section of the grocery store and grab some of that. On that note, look at the ingredients list for store-bought cake sometime. That box that you use to make homemade brownies won’t look so bad.