What is Processed Food?

You’ve probably heard 100 times “limit processed foods”; “eat less refined foods”; “stop eating junk foods” and then the alternative “eat more whole foods”.

Well, what exactly are processed foods?

Food processing is basically altering a food substance through physical, biological and chemical actions after it has been removed from the source, usually nature or nature like in the case of hydroponics, or inland fish farms. If you’ve just boiled spaghetti and made a meat and tomato ragout you’ve processed the ingredients into Spaghetti Bolognaise then you have processed ingredients into the said dish. Alternatively, processing can be much more sophisticated, as in MSG, or transport freezer stable diet ice-cream.

Even as an ex professional chef I was sometimes still confused where the line was between processed and unprocessed. I’m not advocating for no chocolate, donuts or burgers, but there is a healthy limit and it is small, if you want to maintain a healthy body composition and weight.

NOVA (not an acronym) is a system recognised internationally which can help us make healthy choices in our shopping basket. NOVA is a classification system of grouping foods according to the amount of processing food has undergone. Foods prepared at home and in a restaurant are not included in the NOVA classification. In hundreds of other papers, a similar term is used, without the specific grouping, is called energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages (EDNP).

Why is this important?

When eating ultra-processed foods, it is much easier to over consume, while over the long term can add kilograms of unwanted weight. Research is steadily showing associations with ultra-processed foods and non-communicable diseases, an increase of biological markers of disease, and cancer (Monteiro, C. A., et al. 2018). As with trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats the evidence is already conclusive. In addition, eating ultra-processed foods is not sustainable for the environment, climate, and resources, with a very high emission rate for production and waste (Harray, A. J., 2015). Quite simply ultra-processed food is only good for eating rarely, making profit, and wowing the taste buds.

The NOVA Four Groups

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Processed culinary ingredients
  • Processed foods
  • Ultra-processed food and drink products (Open Food Facts, 2016)

First group is food that you will recognise from their origin of plant, animal, fungi, algae or water. For example, a rump steak, roast chicken leg, dried herbs and spices, frozen peas, a banana, a bag of chopped coleslaw ready to go, some nuts, or a glass of milk. Just because it’s in the freezer, a tin or in a bag, doesn’t mean it gives less benefit. It’s one small step of processing for the purpose of transportation, storage, enjoyment, and to save you time, money and increase the length of season so you can enjoy the foods all year long.

Second group is defined as culinary ingredients or cooking ingredients used to improve group one or simply to help during cooking. A dash of oil for frying; coating boiled peas in butter and salt; thickening a sauce with starch. They are honey, starches, vinegars, sugar, oils, fats, and salt.

Third group can be defined as all the usual recognisable source foods–vegetables, meat, fish, and fruit with the addition of honey, maple syrups, salts, sugars, fats (second group foods). This includes cheese though might create confusion. Cheese can fall into two groups. Cheese is simply animal milk with the small addition of a culture, coagulant like rennet or acetic acid, sometimes annatto, a natural seed for the yellow colour in cheddar, and salt. Pretty simple though an ancient process. 

Now we have modern cheese. Which would fall into group four (below). Here’s an example of a large supermarket chain of processed cheese slices- Cheese (55%) (Milk, Salt, Starter Culture, Animal Rennet), Water, Milk Solids, Palm Oil, Emulsifiers (331, 339, 452, 322 from Soy), Salt, Smoke Flavour, Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid), Preservative (Sorbic Acid), Natural Colour (Annatto), Antioxidant (319). 

Fourth group is Ultra Processed foods and drinks. These foods have barely to nothing intact from group one. They are highly laden with salt, sugar, fats or combinations. Paediatrician Susan Prescott describes it as “a collection of isolated components of foods, often assembled with non-nutritive ingredients” (2018). According to Monteiro, C. A., et al. “cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives”, and “contain little or no whole foods, are ready-to-consume or heat up, and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, protein, various micronutrients and other bioactive compounds” (2017). In many studies the term EDNP (energy dense nutrient poor) can be found, but this is a general term.

Examples of the groups

Group 1

  • Fresh, squeezed, chilled, frozen or dried fruits
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Root vegetables: carrots, beetroots, radishes, turnips, parsnips
  • Grains: brown, parboiled or white rice, corn cob or kernel, wheat berry or grain
  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Starchy roots and tubers: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and cassava
  • Fungi: fresh or dried mushrooms
  • Meat, poultry, fish and seafood, whole or in the form of steaks, fillets and other cuts, or chilled or frozen without added salt or oil
  • Eggs
  • Milk, pasteurized or powdered
  • Fresh or pasteurized fruit or vegetable juices without added sugar, sweeteners or flavours
  • Flakes or flour made from corn, wheat, oats or cassava
  • Pasta, couscous and polenta made with flours, flakes or grits and water without added salt or oil; including whole wheat noodles as in soba, buckwheat or udon
  • Tree and ground nuts and other oilseeds without added salt or sugar
  • Spices: turmeric, paprika, pepper, cloves and cinnamon
  • Herbs: thyme, rosemary, mint, fresh or dried
  • Plain yoghurt with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners
  • Tea and coffee with no added sugar
  • Drinking-water

Group 2

  • Vegetable oils crushed from various seeds or nuts, or fruits such as olives
  • Butter and lard obtained from milk and pork. Other animal fats, dripping, suet
  • Starches: corn, wheat, tapioca, quinoa 
  • Sugar and molasses obtained from cane or beet
  • Honey, maple syrup: real extracted not imitation
  • Salt mined or from seawater

Group 3

  • Tinned or bottled vegetables, fruits and legumes
  • Salted or sugared nuts and seeds
  • Salted, pickled, cured or smoked meats, fish and seafood
  • Tinned fish: Tuna, sardines, anchovies, pilchards, salmon
  • Fruits in syrup
  • Cheeses; traditional, not ultra-processed cheese slices, sticks
  • Freshly made breads, unpackaged

Group 4

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Confectionery
  • Mass-produced packaged breads, buns
  • Cookies (biscuits)
  • Pastries, cakes and cake mixes
  • Breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars
  • Margarines and spreads
  • Processed cheese
  • ‘Energy’ drinks; sugared milk drinks 
  • Sugared ‘fruit’ yoghurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; sugared cocoa drinks
  • Meat and chicken extracts 
  • ‘Instant’ sauces
  • Infant formulas, follow-on milks and other baby products 
  • ‘Health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as powdered or ‘fortified’ meal and dish substitutes Ready-to-heat products including pre-prepared pies and 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: Cheap instant 2minute variety
  • Desserts

(Monteiro, C. A. et al., 2018), with a few additions.


According to Monteiro, C. A. et al., the negative implications of eating majority of group four foods goes far beyond health-related consequences. Eating these types of ultra-processed food impacts food security, biodiversity, welfare, climate, pollution, waste, degradation and depletion of air, land, water and resources. I can’t stress enough to eat most from group one and avoid group four until you really are treating yourself, out for dinner. I’m saying it more and more, that we need to find the time to cook, or be cooked for. 

Here’s the thing. If we are athletes, or fitness enthusiasts who regularly exercise (3-5 times per week) we can get away with more of the avoidable foods. At the end of the day whether you are sedentary or not, over consuming any food will increase body fat percentage and alter your body composition unfavourably.

If you have a comment or concern about anything in this article feel free to contact me. 

Thanks for reading.


Need balanced view?

If you ‘ve heard criticisms of the NOVA system I encourage you to read the article below and then reconsider. Much, if not all of the criticisms come from Big-food, Big-Ag, and Big-soft drink. Naturally one would want to defend their trade, organisation, and profits. Fair enough. But when the only motive you have is profit, the lengths people will go is not shocking anymore. 

Considering nutrition science is still relatively new compared to other sciences, some of the claims by food technology corporations as being totally safe don’t sit well for me. Big pharma has many side effects which are easily reported for. Food additives and ultra-processing? They will say it’s totally safe and point at the government. Food technology has its place but for the mass destruction of health through garbage food, is not one of them. 

Now I could be biased into thinking all processed foods should be limited just because of my previous career as a chef working in some very fancy restaurants. When I look at what the experts are saying, who do not have affiliations/financial interests with Big-Food I must agree that ultra-processed foods should be eaten minimally. At the end of the day you have to make the decision, be aware of your body, how you feel with different types of diets, and how you look with the quality and quantity of food. 

Australian researcher breaks contract with Nestlé after attack against Brazilian professor


Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Levy, R. B., Moubarac J., Jaime, P., et al. (2016). NOVA. The star shines bright. [Food classification. Public health] World Nutrition. January-March 2016, 7(1-3), p28-38. https://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/WN-2016-7-1-3-28-38-Monteiro-Cannon-Levy-et-al-NOVA.pdf

Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Moubarac, J. C., Levy, R. B., Louzada, M., & Jaime, P. C. (2018). The UN decade of nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. Public health nutrition21(1), 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980017000234

Open Food Facts, (N.d). Nova groups for food processing. https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova

Peres, J. (2018). Australian researcher breaks contract with nestlé after attack against brazilian professor. O’Joio Eo Trigo. https://ojoioeotrigo.com.br/2018/02/australian-researcher-breaks-contract-with-nestle-after-attack-against-brazilian-teacher/

Harray, A. J., Boushey, C. J., Pollard, C. M., Delp, E. J., Ahmad, Z., Dhaliwal, S. S., Mukhtar, S. A., & Kerr, D. A. (2015). A Novel Dietary Assessment Method to Measure a Healthy and Sustainable Diet Using the Mobile Food Record: Protocol and Methodology. Nutrients, 7(7), 5375–5395. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7075226

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