Processed and  ultra-processed foods: knowing how to choose Processed and  ultra-processed foods: knowing how to choose

Choosing the right foods and learning how to include them in your diet is the secret to preventing them from harming the body.

Medical Advisor Maximiliano Kammerer – Nutritionist

Going to the store and not knowing whether to buy processed or ultra-processed foods, or how much or how often to bring them home is a dilemma faced by many; as it’s no secret that there is no shortage of these foods at grocers and convenience stores. But not paying attention to them or avoiding them completely is not an option. The idea is to be smart about how to choose them. But how? Nutritionist Maximiliano Kammerer offers some advice.

What is the difference between these foods?

“All processed foods have gone through some change before they are digested. You would think that they are all bad, but they aren’t. Foods are processed different ways for different purposes: to preserve them for longer periods of time, to eliminate bacteria to make them easier to digest and distribute (in the case of milk and yogurt), and even to give them flavor or color. Some processes also reduce the chances of having a food allergy, of getting food poisoning, and allow for vitamins and minerals to be added in order to meet certain nutritional requirements. This is the case with cereals that contain iron, and with milk that contains vitamins and minerals.

Ultra-processed foods contain many additives, however, such as salt, saturated fats and preservatives. These foods are highly manipulated, and it is best to avoid them.

It’s not about being afraid of processed foods. It is normal to eat them, and they are commonly found at supermarkets. It is best if the majority of your diet is as natural as possible, however. Try to identify what the food contains by reading the nutrition label to know -and be aware of- what you are eating.”

How to read the nutrition label

“There is a part that says % DV (percent Daily Value) on the label and reflects how much of a substance or nutrient is in a food. When it has between 15% and 20%, this means that it provides a good amount, but when this amount is higher you have to be careful. If it is high in sugar, sodium or cholesterol, it is best to not eat it.”

Who can eat processed foods?

“It is important to consider a person’s physiological condition. For a person with diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, these types of products should not be consumed. But for a healthy person that eats vegetables or canned tuna, for example, it is okay to eat them on occasion. Overall, if the person has no specific medical conditions and eats these products, it isn’t a problem. What should definitely be avoided are ultra-processed foods, often called “snacks,” and those with added ingredients. Although it’s okay to eat them every now and then.”

What about processed meats?

“These are considered processed foods as well and can be consumed two to three times a week by those individuals who do not suffer from a disease, as they contain a little more sodium used for their preservation. Lean veal sausage (chorizo de ternera) and low-fat turkey deli meat are alternatives to add some variety to your diet.”

If is it true that they cause cancer?

“Processed meats have been tied to certain types of this disease, but it is a little risky to try to confirm this as it would require long-term research. With cancer, it’s not always about cause and effect. This condition has several causes. The consumption of these types of foods can be a predisposing factor, especially if consumption occurs in large quantities.”

What diseases can they cause?

“Often times, because they are so high in fat, sodium or sugar, these foods are not balanced with vitamins and minerals, in which case nutritional deficiencies may develop, causing osteopenia and osteoporosis. If someone’s diet is based on these types of foods, they will be lacking a significant amount of nutritional elements.” •

Keep an out for kids

“In terms of ultra-processed foods, it would be best if nobody ate them, especially children. It is okay, however, for children to drink a box of juice occasionally, for example. But if this becomes a habit, it may be harmful, given the amount of sugar that they contain, which turns into a greater chance of being overweight or of suffering from obesity.”

Making an informed choice

Depending on the process they go through, foods may either be:

  • Organic: Foods without preservatives, added chemical products or other types of fertilizers or pesticides. Their growth and production processes are therefore environmentally friendly, and they do not damage the soil. According to the NOVA food classification system, vegetables, fruits and legumes are included in this group.
  • Processed: These foods contain additives, “Substances that and are not considered a food themselves nor have any nutritional value and are added to foods and beverages in minimal amounts,” state Sebastián Odone and Martín Piña in the book Mitos y verdades de los alimentos (Literal translation, “Myths and Truths about Foods”). The risk is when these amounts exceed what is permitted.
  • Ultra-Processed: These are made with industrial ingredients and do not contain fresh food products. They include foods like potato chips, or junk food, candy, canned soups and carbonated beverages. They can cause an addiction to intense flavors and lead to fatigue. It’s best to make informed decisions about additives that may be harmful in order to know what food products to eat.