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Processed food spectrum and what it means for a healthy diet

We have all heard of the term ‘processed foods.’ For many, it brings to mind images of pre-packaged meals and cream-filled breakfast cakes.  But did you know that the term ‘processed’ can also refer to washing and chopping fruits and vegetables?  Processing involves anything that is chemically or mechanically altering the original food item.  The act of processing a food occurs along a spectrum, ranging from fresh or very minimally processed to ultra-processed. It’s important to know at what point along this spectrum food become less nutritious and even harmful to your health.

Researchers at Montana State University developed a helpful graphic illustrating the spectrum of processing called The Unprocessed Pantry (UP3) Framework.  The graphic was originally developed to assist food pantry clients with identifying unprocessed and ultra-processed foods but can also be beneficial to all of us.

Byker Shanks C, Weinmann E, Holder J, McCormick M, Parks CA, Vanderwood K, Coburn C, Johnson N, Yaroch AL. “The UnProcessed Pantry Project Framework to Address Nutrition in the Emergency Food System”, American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 10 (October 1, 2019): pp 1368-1370.

Unprocessed Foods

On the left of the spectrum you can see the unprocessed foods, also referred to as minimally processed, which include fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, meats, and beverages such as milk, coffee, and tea.  Fresh foods can include the fresh piece of fruit or vegetable, but may also be minimally processed by either washing, chopping, grinding, or chilling (frozen or canned vegetables without any added ingredients).

Pantry Staples

Pantry staples are the ingredients you use to cook with, such as flour, oil, and spices, and are not typically eaten on their own.

Lightly and Heavily Prepared Foods

Next comes lightly and heavily prepared foods.  These are your meals and snacks, prepared from both fresh food items and pantry staples.  The main difference between lightly prepared foods and the heavily prepared foods is the amount of sugar, salt, and fat added throughout the preparation/cooking process.  If your goal is to eat healthy, then you want your diet to consist mostly of fresh and lightly prepared foods.

Ultra-processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods have added artificial ingredients, such as sweeteners and preservatives, and are also higher in salt/sodium, sugar, and fat which can lead to a variety of health challenges such as high blood pressure, blood sugar imbalance, and excessive weight gain.  These foods include items like chips, candy, soft drinks, and most store-bought packaged frozen meals.  These foods should be eaten sparingly.

How do you determine if something is unprocessed or ultra-processed?

The best place to start is by reviewing the item’s nutrition label and ingredients list.  Here are some things to look for:

  • How much salt/sodium, added sugar, and fat is in the item. A good rule of thumb is to consume less than 10% of your calories from added sugars and saturated fat.
  • “Low sodium” labels, which are classified by less than 140 mg per serving.
  • Longer, more-complicated terms that you don’t recognize. This can be a good sign that the item has added artificial ingredients.  Aim to select items that have fewer ingredients that you recognize.

If your goal is to eat to be healthy, aim to eat a variety of unprocessed foods every day, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, calcium rich foods, and healthy fats.  Be more aware of your food choices by reading the nutrition label and scanning through the ingredients list.

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McKenzie Johnson, RDN

McKenzie Johnson, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Billings Clinic Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolism Center.

2 comments on “Processed food spectrum and what it means for a healthy diet

  1. How do those pre-bagged salad kits rate? ie: Asian salad with packs of dressing, wanton strips, sliced almonds included?

    1. Great question! Pre-bagged salad kits are made with fresh ingredients primarily. The dressings are the main concern as they can sometimes contain larger amounts of sugar, salt, or fat. You can review the nutrition facts label, but the majority of these kits likely fit in the lightly to heavily prepared category and can be a great addition to your meals.

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