Chemically processed food – healthy or not? Read to know more!

In our fast-paced world processed food makes life easier. We have heard often that staying away from highly processed food is healthier. And even though processed food is bad many don’t know what they are and why they are harmful. In this article, you will be able to understand more about processed food.

Highly processed foods

         Almost all foods are processed, at least to some degree. For Eg, factories process dried beans to make them shelf-stable. This does not make them unhealthy. Therefore it’s important to know that foods aren’t “unhealthy” just because they’re processed.

Researchers have divided foods into four categories. It is based on the extent of processing of the processed foods

To do this, they used NOVA, a food classification system developed by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil

  • NOVA Group 1. Minimally processed & unprocessed foods. Vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts fall into this category. These foods may have gone through roasting, boiling, or pasteurization. As a result, it increases shelf life and makes them safer to eat.
  • NOVA Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature. This includes foods such as olive oil, maple syrup, and salt. Group 2 foods are used in the preparation and cooking of group 1 foods.
  • NOVA Group 3. Processed foods, including items made by adding ingredients like salt, sugar, or other substances from group 2 to group 1 food. Examples include fresh bread, fruits in syrup, and cheese.
  • NOVA Group 4. Ultra-processed foods. These contain little, if any, of the foods or ingredients from group 1. These items are meant to be convenient, hyper-palatable, and low cost. And are high in sugars, refined grains, fats, preservatives, and salt.

Highly processed, foods contain substances you wouldn’t use in food preparation at home, such as

  • hydrolyzed proteins
  • modified starches
  • hydrogenated oils
  • colourants
  • flavourings
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • artificial sweeteners
  • bulking agents

Examples of highly processed foods

Here are some examples of highly processed foods sugary beverages: such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and fruit punch

  • sweet/savoury packaged snacks(chips and cookies)
  • sweetened breakfast cereals(Froot Loops, and sweetened oatmeal)
  • baking mixes(stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes)
  • powdered and packaged instant soups
  • candies and other confectionery
  • packaged bread and buns
  • energy and protein bars and shakes
  • meal replacement shakes & powders meant for weight loss
  • boxed pasta products
  • ice cream, sweetened yoghurt

This list is not detailed. Many other foods and ingredients are also considered highly processed. The most reliable way to identify highly processed foods is to read the ingredient labels. Ultra-processed foods have ingredients such as:

  • artificial colourings and flavourings
  • thickeners and preservatives
  • hydrolyzed proteins
  • sweeteners such as fructose, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, and maltodextrin
  • hydrogenated/interesterified oils
  • bulking, foaming, and gelling agents
  • flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG)

To learn more about food additives check out the United Nations Codex Alimentarius.

What are healthy foods? 

        Generally, vegetables, fruits, pasteurized milk, chicken, fish, beans, and eggs are considered unprocessed/minimally processed.

Examples of healthy, whole foods:

  • vegetables and fruits, including fresh, frozen, unsweetened dried produce
  • grains (rice/brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat)
  • legumes (beans and lentils)
  • starchy root vegetables(potatoes and sweet potatoes)
  • meat, poultry, eggs, and fish
  • fresh/pasteurized milk and plain yoghurt
  • 100% fruit/vegetable juice
  • herbs and spices
  • tea and coffee
  • nuts and seeds

Oils, like olive & avocado oil, are derived from whole foods and are healthy.

Main differences:

There are many differences between minimally and highly processed foods. 


Highly processed foods have high calories than whole, minimally processed foods For example, a 100-gram serving of potato chips contains 545 calories, while the same size serving of a plain baked potato contains only 95 calories. However when you’re considering whether a food is healthy, consider its entire nutritional value, not just its calorie count.

Sugar content

Sweet highly processed foods have high added sugars. Highly processed foods such as sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged baked goods, and sweetened beverages are designed to be hyper-palatable. Sadly these products are marketed toward children and adolescents. On the other hand, homemade breakfast contains zero grams of added sugar. Hence is a much more nutritious choice for adults or growing children. Processed beverages, which are famous contain a stunning amount of sugar. An 8.4-ounce (248-mL) can of the energy drink Red Bull contains 26.6 grams( 6.24 teaspoons, of sugar)

Some other differences

Highly processed foods are lower in fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals and higher in salt and fat than whole, nutritious foods. Yet, again, this isn’t always the case. Some ultra-processed foods and drinks can contain added fibres and protein concentrates. Therefore they’re more nutritious. Besides, there are some highly processed foods marketed as “diet,” “lite,” or “low fat.”  But this doesn’t mean they’re healthy.

Is it unhealthy to consume processed foods?

Processed food fortified with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can be beneficial. As they provide essential nutrients in a person’s diet.

For example, baby foods fortified with iron and vitamin B12 can prevent anaemia; milk containing vitamin D can prevent rickets; salt containing iodine can prevent goitre. In contrast to these benefits, most processed foods are harmful. As they contain a high amount of saturated fats, sugar, salt, and an unmatched amount of calories. For example, a homemade soup made with chicken, vegetables, brown rice, and broth is likely much more nutritious than a highly processed canned soup mix. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean you have to completely avoid processed and highly processed foods. 


         Studies claimed that consumption of a high amount of processed food increases the risk of: cardiovascular disorders, metabolic disorders (obesity and diabetes), coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular diseases.

Some of the major complications of processed foods are as follows:

  • Affect metabolism and cardiovascular functioning
  • Alters meal fullness and glycemic response of the body
  • Increases risk of cancer and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Higher rate of mortality.


       Rather than seeing which is healthier, it’s best to see which is nutrient-dense. You needn’t avoid processed foods completely. It’s possible to maintain a balanced diet while occasionally enjoying your favourite snacks. To conclude the harmful side-effects of ultra-processed foods are ever-growing. Busy people don’t have a choice but to rely on these easy to make processed foods. But there are some steps you can include to follow a healthier diet. And checking the labels of processed food is key.

 Prefer healthy options and be mindful of your processed food intake. 


Subin Joshua
Author: Hi there, my name is Subin Joshua, and I am a Medical student. I grew up in a family of teachers and know that being a social worker is my calling. My passion for helping others has been evident in my involvement in helping the poor and needy for the last three years. Through those experiences, I have learned to interact with a diverse group of people, which has increased my ability to relate to others.