You’ve heard someone say they avoid “processed” foods, and maybe you’ve even said it yourself. But how do you know if you really are avoiding processed foods? What determines if a food product is considered processed or not?

Some people, like those who follow the teachings of Dr. Sebi, consider a very short list of foods (foods that exist today exactly as they existed hundreds of years ago) to be fit for consumption. Others follow the more relaxed guideline of shopping primarily from the perimeter of the grocery store, leaning heavily towards produce and refrigerated foods.

Like most things, rather than try to define an exact set of rules, I like to think of it as more of a sliding scale. Also as with most everything in health and nutrition, making a small shift towards “better” is better than changing nothing at all. So, naturally, I’d recommend sticking to food that is as close to its original form as possible.

An apple is a fruit, not a flavor.

What makes a food considered processed

There are many ways a food product can be processed and modified, ranging from removing nutritional benefits to adding potentially harmful chemicals and additives to the food.

For example, consider an apple. Just as nature made it, it is perfect, and best suited for consumption. With the skin on, adding fiber to help slow the sugar spike from the fructose. It has nutrients like vitamins, plus the phytonutrients that help protect from disease.

Next we can look at processing that removes nutrients and benefits of the original food, like applesauce, or worse, apple juice. Sure, they still provide basic elements like vitamins, but they’re lacking phytonutrients and, without its skin, the spike from the fruit sugar is steep and quick leaving you less satisfied long term. At this point (as long as it is organic) the food isn’t going to do harm, it just isn’t as nutritionally valuable.

Going even further… extreme processing. I’m talking to you, apple-stuff in a toaster strudel and apple flavored candy. Not only are these items void of any nutritional benefits from apples, they also have added sugars as well as potentially toxic chemicals. These only serve to cut costs for the producer but can cause serious concerns for your health.

>>> Don’t eat these, these aren’t food! Only eat food!

A professional’s opinion: Technical Differences Between Natural and Processed Foods

I recently came across an article about an editorial published in the JAMA Pediatrics Journal, written by Dr. Robert Lustig, a longtime childhood-obesity researcher, and author of New York Times bestseller Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. In the Journal, Dr. Lustig discusses common differences between natural and processed foods, and how the processed foods affect your body differently than actual food.

Dr. Lustig explains that processed foods are defined in terms of the food engineering that goes into making the products. To him, processed food meets many of the criteria below.

You can bet your food is processed if:

  • It’s mass-produced
  • It’s consistent from batch to batch
  • It has a long shelf life or freezer life
  • It stays emulsified (meaning its fat-based and water-based components stay mixed together, rather than separating),
  • It uses specialized ingredients (especially anything you’ve not heard of as being food: apples, cinnamon and sugar are food. Di-phosphate-mono-something-or-other is not!)

How processed foods affect your body differently than natural foods

⇒ Not enough fiber

Fiber is important to health because it plays a key role in how food is absorbed in the gut. In the intestines, fiber forms a gelatinous barrier that coats the intestinal walls. This barrier slows the absorption of glucose and fructose into the blood, which helps prevent blood sugar levels from spiking.

⇒ Not enough omega-3 fatty acids

The body converts these fatty acids, which are found in foods such as fish and nuts, into docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties.

⇒ Too many omega-6 fatty acids

Conversely, these fatty acids, though similar to omega-3s, are converted in the body to a proinflammatory compound called arachidonic acid. Lustig noted in the editorial that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet should ideally be one to one; however, the typical U.S. diet has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 25 to one, which favors a proinflammatory state. This inflammation can cause oxidative stress and damage to cells in the body.

⇒ Not enough micronutrients

Processed foods contain too few vitamins and minerals, known as micronutrients, many of which act as antioxidants, which help prevent cellular damage.

⇒ Too many trans fats

Trans fat molecules are structurally different from other types of fats, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Because of this difference — a double bond found in the molecule — the body is unable to break down trans fats, Lustig wrote. Instead, the trans fats end up in a person’s arteries and liver, where they generate damaging free radicals.

⇒ Too many branched-chain amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The “branched-chain” in the name refers to the chemical structure of the amino acid. Several amino acids that the body needs, including valine, leucine and isoleucine, have branched chains, Lustig wrote.

And although branched-chain amino acids are needed for building muscle, when a person eats too many of them, the excess molecules go to the liver, where they are converted to fat, he wrote.

Main article and images by Susan Lawrence
Portions of the summary of Journal Editorial originally posted by Sara G. Miller, Staff Writer at livescience.com
Data based on content in the JAMA Pediatrics journal by Dr. Robert Lustig.