How Do You Know? Identifying Unprocessed, Minimally Processed, Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods

There is a lot of talk these days about ultra-processed foods and the fact that unprocessed and minimally processed foods are better for our bodies and brains.   In the U.S., consumers are most frequently presented with ultra-processed and processed food options–they make up a large portion of the shelf space inside U.S. supermarkets, with unprocessed and minimally processed making up a smaller amount of the food sold in supermarkets.  In a previous blog post we focused on research conducted by Northwestern Medicine that examined the processing levels of packaged food products in the U.S. The scientists analyzed 230,156 products and, using the NOVA classification system, found 71% of products such as bread, salad dressings, snack foods, sweets, sugary drinks and more were ultra-processed. Among the top 25 manufacturers by sales volume, 86% of products were classified as ultra-processed.

Ultra-processed foods are frequently described as having more synthetic and industrialized additives than natural food ingredients–with some having no natural food ingredients at all. So reading the ingredients listing on the packaging is one way to determine the level of processing.  But how can you be sure what type of food you are buying?  One solution is to use the same classification system that researchers use:  The NOVA food classification system.  Below is a synopsis of the NOVA four classifications of food: Unprocessed, Minimally Processed, Processed and Ultra-Processed.

items organized on shelves


The NOVA food classification system and its four food groups


|GROUP 1 |

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods

Unprocessed (or natural) foods are the edible parts of plants (such as fruit, leaves, stems, seeds, roots) or from animals (such as muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature. 

Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by methods that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and also processes that include drying, crushing, grinding, powdering, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, chilling, freezing, placing in containers, and vacuum packaging. The distinction between unprocessed and minimally processed foods is not especially significant.

These methods and processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage, or else to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume. Many unprocessed or minimally processed foods are prepared and cooked as dishes or meals in kitchens at home or in restaurants or canteens in combination with processed culinary ingredients and sometimes with some processed foods.

Examples: Fresh, squeezed, chilled, frozen, or dried fruit and leafy and root vegetables; grains such as brown, parboiled or white rice, corn cob or kernel, wheat berry or grain; legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas; starchy roots and tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava; fungi such as fresh or dried mushrooms; meat, poultry, fish and seafood, whole or in the form of steaks, fillets and other cuts; fresh, powdered, chilled or frozen eggs; fresh, powdered or pasteurized milk;  fresh or pasteurized fruit or vegetable juices (with no added sugar, sweeteners or flavors); grits, flakes or flour made from corn, wheat, oats, or cassava; tree and ground nuts and other oily seeds (with no added salt or sugar); herbs and spices used in culinary preparations, such as thyme, oregano, mint, pepper, cloves and cinnamon, whole or powdered, fresh or dried; fresh or pasteurized plain yogurt; tea, coffee, and drinking water. Also includes foods made up from two or more items in this group, such as dried mixed fruits, granola made from cereals, nuts and dried fruit with no added sugar, honey or oil; pasta, couscous and polenta made with flours, flakes or grits and water; and foods with vitamins and minerals added generally to replace nutrients lost during processing, such as wheat or corn flour fortified with iron and folic acid.



Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients include oils, butter, lard, sugar and salt.  These are substances derived from group 1 foods or else from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and drying. Some methods used to make processed culinary ingredients are originally ancient. But now they usually are industrial products, designed to make durable products suitable for use in home, restaurant and canteen kitchens to prepare, season and cook freshly prepared dishes and meals.

Examples: Vegetable oils crushed from seeds, nuts or fruit (notably olives); butter and lard obtained from milk and pork; sugar and molasses obtained from cane or beet; honey extracted from combs and syrup from maple trees; starches extracted from corn and other plants; vegetable oils with added anti-oxidants; salt mined or from seawater, and table salt with added drying agents. Also includes products consisting of group 2 items, such as salted butter, and group 2 items with added vitamins or minerals, such as iodized salt.



Processed foods

These include canned or bottled vegetables or legumes (pulses) preserved in brine; whole fruit preserved in syrup; tinned fish preserved in oil; some types of processed animal foods such as ham, bacon, pastrami, and smoked fish; most freshly baked breads; and simple cheeses to which salt is added. They are made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from group 2 to group 1 foods.  Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and with breads and cheeses, non-alcoholic fermentation.

Examples: Canned or bottled vegetables and legumes in brine; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; salted, dried, cured, or smoked meats and fish; canned fish (with or without added preservatives); fruit in syrup (with or without added anti-oxidants); freshly made unpackaged breads and cheeses.




Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’). Some common ultra-processed products are carbonated soft drinks; sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks; candies (confectionery); mass produced packaged breads and buns, cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes and cake mixes; margarine and other spreads; sweetened breakfast ‘cereals’ and fruit yogurt and ‘energy’ drinks; pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’; sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts; baby formula; and many other types of product.

Processes enabling the manufacture of ultra-processed foods involve several steps and different industries. It starts with the fractioning of whole foods into substances including sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fiber. These substances are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (such as corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming.

Ultra-processed foods are made possible by use of many types of additives, including those that imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or culinary preparations made from foods. The processes and the ingredients used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods make them highly convenient (ready-to-consume, almost imperishable) and highly attractive (hyper-palatable) for consumers, and highly profitable (low cost ingredients, long shelf-life) for their manufacturers. But these processes and ingredients also make ultra-processed foods typically nutritionally unbalanced and liable to be over-consumed and to displace all three other NOVA food groups, all of which include foods processed in some form.

Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications. Subsequent processes involve the assembly of unmodified and modified food substances with little if any whole food using industrial techniques such as extrusion, molding and pre-frying. Colors, flavors, emulsifiers and other additives are frequently added to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable. Sophisticated and attractive packaging is used, usually made of synthetic materials. Sugar, oils and fats, and salt, used to make processed foods, are often ingredients of ultra-processed foods, commonly in combination. Additives that prolong product duration, protect original properties, and prevent proliferation of micro-organisms may be used in both processed and ultra-processed foods, as well as in processed culinary ingredients, and, infrequently, in minimally processed foods.

Ingredients characteristic of ultra-processed foods are either food substances of no or rare culinary use, or else classes of additives whose function is to make the final product sellable, palatable and often hyper-palatable.

Food substances of no or rare culinary use, employed in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, include varieties of sugars (fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrates’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose), modified oils (hydrogenated or interesterified oils) and sources of protein (hydrolyzed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, and ‘mechanically separated meat’).

Classes of additives used only in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, are flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, and foaming, anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, gelling and glazing agents. All of them, most notably flavors and colors, either disguise unpleasant sensory properties created by ingredients, processes or packaging used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods, or give the final product intense sensory properties especially attractive to see, taste, smell and/or touch, or both.

Again, the processes and ingredients used for the manufacture of ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable products (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life, powerfully branded). Their convenience (imperishable, ready-to-consume), hyper-palatability, and ownership by transnational corporations using pervasive advertising and promotion, give ultra-processed foods enormous market advantages. They are therefore liable to displace all other NOVA food groups, and to replace freshly made regular meals and dishes, with snacking any time, anywhere.

Examples: Commercially wrapped breads, packaged cakes and pies, and pre-prepared animal products such as hot dogs and burgers. Packaged ready-to-heat products consumed at home or at fast food outlets such as meat, cheese, pizza and pasta dishes, and French fries (chips) may look much the same as home-cooked food, but their formulations and the ingredients used in their pre-preparation render them ultra-processed.

More Examples: Many ready-to-consume products such as carbonated soft drinks; sweet or savory packaged snacks; chocolate, candies (confectionery); ice-cream; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and other spreads; cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; ‘energy’ drinks; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yogurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; ‘cocoa’ drinks; ‘instant’ sauces.

Many pre-prepared ready-to-heat products including pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products; and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts. Infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products; ‘health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as meal replacement shakes and powders.



food chemicals-label FOOD-ADDITIVES-best


Identifying ultra-processed foods:  Additives


Those whose lists of ingredients also include emulsifiers or colors are ultra-processedsome of the most frequently used classes of additives such as flavors, flavor enhancers, colors and emulsifiers are usually easy to identify. They may be expressed as a class, such as flavorings or natural flavors or artificial flavors; or their names are followed by their class, such as monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer)’, or ‘caramel color’, or ‘soya lecithin as emulsifier’. Other classes of additives commonly used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods include sweeteners like aspartame, cyclamate or compounds derived from stevia.

Food substances not used in kitchens appear in the beginning or in the middle of the lists of ingredients of ultra-processed foods. These include hydrolyzed proteins, soya protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, ‘mechanically separated meat’, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, ‘fruit juice concentrate’, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, soluble or insoluble fiber, hydrogenated or interesterified oil. The presence in the list of ingredients of one or more of these food substances identifies a product as ultra-processed.

Classes of additives exclusively used in ultra-processed foods are at the end of lists of ingredients, together with other additives. These include flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents. Any example of these classes of additives as shown on ingredients lists also identifies a product as ultra-processed.


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To read the entire NOVA report download the pdf here:   NOVA Processed Foods Classification System