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Everything You Need to Know About Processed Food

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Before I delve straight into the processed food debate I want to set some context for you by mentioning toxic load. So this may be a term you have heard bounded around from time to time but might not know exactly what it means.

You may relate it to some type of juice cleanse or fad diet you have heard about online, which is not the scientific definition I want to explore today.

To understand what toxic load is we must first define detoxification. Detoxification is an essential process in the body which involves transforming a toxin into a less harmful or water soluble state. You are probably wondering where I am going with this.

So, If we aren't able to support detoxification it can result in a high toxic load.

So what does a high toxic load look like in the body? Some signs of a high toxic load in the body can include-

Digestive issues, gallbladder issues, food allergies and intolerances, eczema, psorasis, acne, rashes, asthma, stress management issues, infertility, PMS, weight management issues, anxiety, depression, headaches, poor memory and sleep issues. (this does not mean that high toxic load is the only cause or driver of these symptoms, simply that it is something that must be taken into consideration when dealing with them.)

Moving on, toxins can be endogenous (internal) and can include a host of issues issues with bodily systems and processes like digestion, stress management, metabolism and oxidative stress.

Or toxins can be exogenous (external) includes toxins like such as ultra-processed food, smoking, alcohol, medications and air pollution.

One of the toxins we have control over is our intake of processed foods. Now firstly I want to be clear that in this modern day and age it is nearly impossible to avoid processed foods completely. A recent report by the Soil Association outlines that 'all the food we eat has been processed to some degree, whether by chopping, slicing, biting or chewing. Many processing techniques have been used for centuries to preserve and transform food, making it taste better and last longer.'

Food processing can also support a more secure food system due to extended shelf life on products. So there are many factors to take into consideration. But today I am mainly focusing on intake of processed food for health outcomes.

A team at the University of Sao Paulo developed the NOVA system that categorises food into four groups.

  1. Minimally processed- these include whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat and animal products. Also included are fruits, vegetables, meat and animal products that have been processed using techniques common in household kitchens, such as drying, crushing, grinding, steaming, boiling, roasting, chilling and freezing. This includes fresh and dried fruit, rice, grains, legumes, vegetables, plain yoghurt, fresh milk, tea, pasta, granola with no additives and sweeteners.

  2. Culinary Ingredients- substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining extracting or mining. These are used to prepare, season and cook group 1 foods. Single ingredient foods include- pressed vegetable oils, butter, honey, salt, corn starch

  3. Processed foods- products made by adding group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods. Processes are used to increase shelf life or modify sensory qualities such as taste or form. This includes canned or bottled vegetables and legumes in brine, canned fish, fresh bread, cheese and canned fruit.

  4. Ultra-processed foods- Formulations of ingredients made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology. Typically contain little or no wholefoods, are ready to consume or heat up and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre. They are made using industrial additives and processes that wouldn't be found in a household kitchen. This includes fizzy drinks, crisps, snacks, chocolate, confectionery, ice cream, bread, buns, margarines and spreads, biscuits, pastries, cakes, breakfast cereals, ready meals (including pies, pastas, pizzas, nuggets, hot dogs), instant sauces, instant noodles, infant formulas, follow on milks and other baby products.

The main consideration about these different categories of processed foods is to reduce intake of category 4 foods as much as possible. You can make a massive impact on your health if you aim to have these foods 20% of the time rather than 80% of the time. If you want to have them less than that... perfect!

Part of the reasoning behind this suggestion was highlighted in a 2020 review carried out by Elizabeth et al. This review established a clear association between ultra-processed foods and poor health outcomes, including overweight, obesity, cardio-metabolic risks, cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, frailty conditions and all-cause mortality.

From the NOVA scale above you can see there is some level of processing involved in a lot of the foods that we consume. So as I said previously I am not here to suggest an elimination of processed foods. What I suggest is a sensible approach to managing intake of processed foods to support health and wellbeing.

Some of my top tips to start reducing your intake of ultra processed foods are-

  1. Reduce your intake of takeaway food- aim to have takeaway no more than once a week. Or when you are having takeaway aim to have it from smaller local outlets where you can ask them about how the food is made and where it is sourced.

  2. Swap out chilled and frozen ready meals for fresher alternatives. Some examples include instead of buying a frozen pizza try making your own pitta pizza or make a quick and easy one pot pasta instead of a frozen pasta meal.

  3. Swap out convenience ultra processed snacks with fruit, nuts, seeds, veggie sticks and hummus, dates and almond butter.

  4. Ditch the sugary fizzy drinks. There is no nutritional value in these. Try swapping out for some fresh fruit in sparkling water.


Allen, J., Montalto, M., Lovejoy, J. and Weber, W. (2011). Detoxification in Naturopathic Medicine: A Survey. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, [online] 17(12), pp.1175–1180. doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0572.

Elizabeth, L., Machado, P., Zinöcker, M., Baker, P. and Lawrence, M. (2020). Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Nutrients, [online] 12(7), p.1955. doi:10.3390/nu12071955.

Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Levy, R.B., Moubarac, J.-C., Louzada, M.L., Rauber, F., Khandpur, N., Cediel, G., Neri, D., Martinez-Steele, E., Baraldi, L.G. and Jaime, P.C. (2019). Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public health nutrition, [online] 22(5), pp.936–941. doi:10.1017/S1368980018003762.

Pagliai, G., Dinu, M., Madarena, M.P., Bonaccio, M., Iacoviello, L. and Sofi, F. (2020). Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, pp.1–11. doi:10.1017/s0007114520002688.

Ross, M., Matthews, A. and Mangum, L. (2014). Chemical Atherogenesis: Role of Endogenous and Exogenous Poisons in Disease Development. Toxics, 2(1), pp.17–34. doi:10.3390/toxics2010017.

Soil Association- Ultra Processed Foods Report

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