Article written by Sara Silva, founder of the No Footprint Nomads project.

Unprocessed and ultra-processed foods - know the differences

In 2019, the Director-General at FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) called for the need to produce healthier foods. Two studies, one Spanish and another Brazilian, warn of the health risks of consuming highly processed foods.

But, what are processed foods? How can we identify them? The Food Guide for the Brazilian Population bases its nutritional recommendations on the classification of foods developed by the University of São Paulo, in Brazil.

According to this classification, called NOVA, foods can be divided into 4 groups:

Group 1. Unprocessed (fresh) or minimally processed foods

Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients

Group 3. Processed foods

Group 4. Ultra-processed foods

Unprocessed (fresh) or minimally processed foods

This group includes foods that come directly from nature or that go through simple processes in order to guarantee their safe consumption. The group includes:

. all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and natural fruits;

. whole grains, such as rice;

. legumes;

. mushrooms;

. dry fruits;

. fruit juices without added sugar;

. dried fruits without salt or sugar;

. herbs;

. flours and fresh pasta;

. fresh or frozen meats and fish;

. pasteurized, UHT, or powdered milk;

. yogurt without added sugar;

. tea, coffee, drinking water;

. eggs.

 Tip: It is recommended to vary the consumption of foods in this group. They should be the basis of all meals to ensure a balanced diet.

Processed culinary ingredients

This group includes ingredients used to prepare and season fresh foods. As they derive from food or other natural sources that undergo some type of industrial processing, they are considered processed.

The group includes:

. vegetable oils and olive oil;

. butter;

. lard;

. sugar;

. salt.

Tip: They should be used sparingly as they are usually very caloric. But, they are great for flavoring culinary preparations based on the foods from the previous group.

Processed foods

This group includes natural foods to which processed culinary ingredients are added (group 2). Usually, they undergo some kind of processing in order to increase the shelf life and enhance certain properties.

Examples of foods in this group are:

. preserves and canned goods;

. syrup or candied fruits and jellies;

. smoked and brine meats and other processed meats;

. cheeses;

. breads made with wheat flour, yeast, water and salt.

Tip: They should be eaten in moderation and should accompany the foods of group 1. They shouldn’t be the main ingredients of a meal.

Ultra-processed foods

These are food products that undergo various industrial processes and to which natural or synthetic substances are added – also called additives. The purpose of additives is to give more color, flavor, or increase the shelf life of a product.

This group of foods often uses ingredients from group 3, such as oils, sugar, and salt in high doses to impart a highly refined flavor. Ultra-processed foods may not even include fresh foods in their composition.

Nutritionally, they are often worthless products, although they may be marketed as being low in calories.

This group includes:

. treats and sweets;

. breakfast cereals;

. cakes, breads, biscuits and cookies made with hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, starch, whey, emulsifiers, and other additives;

. margarine;

. cereal bars;

. “instant” foods and ready-made sauces;

. “packaged” snacks;

. soft drinks;

. sweetened and flavored yoghurts and dairy drinks;

. energetic drinks;

. frozen products and ready for heating.

Tip: Just look at the list of ingredients – if they are 5 or more or if they are unrecognizable, it is probably an ultra-processed food. This type of food should be completely avoided for a healthy diet.

If you want to have an idea about the types of foods you eat according to this classification, use the Open Food Facts app the next time you go shopping. Just scan the barcode to get the information (it includes nutritional information).


Main references:

Food Guide for the Brazilian population (reduced version)

FAO report (2019): Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system.

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