Minimally-processed versus Ultra-processed: What is the Difference?


Happy Canadian Thanksgiving everyone! I hope you all are enjoying the last day of the long weekend, doing exactly what our ancestors would have wanted: spending time with family and napping on the couch after a turkey coma.

Last week I read a great Huffington Post article by RD Abby Langer (Hi Abby!) titled “Not all processed foods are created equal”. Seeing as I am doing my October unprocessed challenge, I thought this article was right up my alley. You can view the article here. I really enjoyed it because Abby shares many similar viewpoints to me around eating more unprocessed foods. In an ideal world, eating 100% unprocessed means making your own bouillon stock, buying pounds of almonds to make your own almond milk and never purchasing a bottled condiment again (yes, here is a recipe to make your own Sriracha!). However realistically, many of us do not have the time, budget or cooking/storage facilities to make all these unprocessed foods a reality. For example, Abby discusses how she simply does not have the freezer space to hold jars and jars of homemade chicken stock. And in my tiny Toronto apartment, I can barely fit an ice cube tray in my freezer!

So for those of us who still want to eat unprocessed foods, should we make ourselves feel bad for succumbing to so-called “convenience foods”? Of course not! Because you can break down “processed versus unprocessed” even further: “minimally-processed or ultra-processed”. I define them as follows:

Minimally-processed: Foods that have been processed to require less preparation time (e.g. vegetables that have been blanched and flash-frozen), yet still list minimal ingredients and/or contain ingredients that can be found in a common kitchen. Minimally-processed foods are still very healthy and I consider a healthy option within MY GOALS of the October unprocessed challenge. Here are my top minimally-processed foods:

  • Frozen vegetables and fruits: These foods are technically processed as they are blanched (vegetables) and flash-frozen. However they are a great way to enjoy out of season produce, and are so fast to prepare as they are already washed and chopped. I use frozen fruits in smoothies and baking. I use frozen vegetables in everything from soups to curries.
  • Yogurt: Yes, some people make their own yogurt (apparently it is a great cost-saver). But for me, time can be as important as money, so I buy my own yogurt rather than make it. But the key is buying yogurt with the LEAST amount of ingredients. And that means buying PLAIN yogurt, and sweetening/flavouring it yourself. The amount of added sugars and dyes in flavoured yogurt is staggering. Plain yogurt is a blank canvas, where the opportunities are limitless! Add frozen fruit, nuts, seeds, a dab of honey/maple syrup, flaxseed, etc etc.
  • Vegetable/chicken stock: As mentioned above, I don’t have the storage capacity for containers of stock in my apartment. Therefore I buy organic (I like Pacific brand or GoBio) vegetable or chicken stock. Since fall is soups and stews season, I go through A LOT of stock 🙂
  • Natural peanut/almond butter: I don’t think a day has gone by in the last year where I didn’t eat some sort of nut butter, on or in something. I LOVE nut butters. However the thought of grinding and pressing bags of peanuts/almonds just doesn’t appeal to me. Thankfully, there are a lot of options out there to purchase nut butters with one simple ingredient: NUTS. Be weary of nut butters that have other additives (e.g. Kraft® Smooth peanut butter) like icing sugar and soybean oil.

Ultra-processed: Foods that have been changed so drastically that they no longer resemble their natural form, and have many additives that are hard to pronounce and would never be found in a common kitchen pantry. Here are my top choices for ultra-processed offenders:

  • Cheez-Whiz® or processed cheese slices: Notice how Kraft® can’t even use the word “cheese” in their product? That’s because it contains very little actual cheese. In fact the official title is an “edible oil product”. Do you have any “modified milk ingredients” lying around your house? Didn’t think so.
  • Sugared cereals: Many sugared cereals have added processed sugar (corn syrup, modified corn starch) and dyes, especially those that are coloured (e.g Lucky Charms® has Yellow 5 & 6, Blue 1, Red 40 and “other natural and artificial colours”). Sadly these products are marketed to children. You are much better off getting cereals with 1-2 ingredients (e.g. Shredded Wheat® has one ingredient, wheat!) and using it as your blank canvas to add other healthy ingredients (fruit, nuts, seeds, flax, honey, maple syrup etc)
  • 100% fruit juice: Would you go and pick 15-20 apples off a tree, and eat them all at once? Of course not, that would take forever! So why would you drink a huge glass of apple juice? Juice is just the super-concentrated sugar from fruits, without the added benefits of fibre. Just eat a piece of fruit instead of the juice.
  • TV dinners: Reading the ingredients list of TV dinners reminds me of looking at my chemistry textbooks in highschool. A bunch of weird chemical names that somehow form a product that we all recognize. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this ingredients list I found on a “Hungry Man® TV entrée” (Saisbury steak with potatoes, green beans and brownie):


Gravy (Water, Mushrooms, Onions, Modified Corn Starch, International Sherry Cooking Wine [Sherry Wine, Salt], Flavor [Salt, Beef Stock, Beef Fat, Maltodextrin, Potassium Chloride, Hydrolyzed Soy, Corn And Wheat Gluten Protein, Yeast Extract, Vegetable Stock (Carrot, Onion, Celery), Natural And Artificial Flavors, Potassium Lactate, Onion Powder, Dextrose, Sugar, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Soy Sauce (Soybeans, Salt, Wheat), Modified Corn Starch, Tomato Powder And Citric Acid], Enriched Flour [Wheat Flour (Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid)], Onion Powder, Sugar, Cream Powder Blend [Heavy Cream, Whey Protein Concentrate, Whey, Sodium Aluminosilicate], Caramel Color, Salt, Yeast Extract, Spice), Cooked Salisbury Steak Patty (Beef, Water, Pork, Textured Soy Protein Concentrate With Caramel Color, Bread Crumbs [Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour (Enriched With Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Dextrose. Contains 2% Or Less of Yeast, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean And/Or Cottonseed), Salt], Soy Protein Concentrate, Seasoning Blend (Maltodextrin, Salt, Grill Flavor [Soybean And Cottonseed Oils], Modified Food Starch, Corn Syrup Solids, Smoke Flavoring, Salt, Dehydrated Onion, Caramel Color, Sodium Phosphate, Garlic Powder, Spice Extract, Eggs, Spice), Mashed Potatoes (Reconstituted Potatoes [Mono- And Diglycerides, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Citric Acid], Margarine [Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil With Tbhq And Citric Acid As Preservatives, Water, Mono- And Diglycerides (BHT, Citric Acid),

Beta-Carotene For Color (Corn Oil, Tocopherol), Vitamin A Palmitate], Dried Dairy Blend [Whey, Calcium Caseinate], Salt, Water), Green Beans, Brownie (Sugar, Water, Enriched Flour [Wheat Flour (Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid]), Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil With Tbhq And Citric Acid As Preservatives, Cocoa, Eggs, Margarine [Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil With Tbhq And Citric Acid As Preservatives, Water, Mono- And Diglycerides (BHT, Citric Acid), Beta Carotene For Color (Corn Oil, Tocopherol), Vitamin A Palmitate], Acacia And Xanthan Gums, Sodium Bicarbonate [Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil], Salt, Natural And Artificial Vanilla Flavor [Water, Propylene Glycol, Ethanol, Caramel Color, Vanilla Extractives]), Sauce (Water, Sugar, Margarine [Soybean Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Water, Salt, Whey, Soy Lecithin, Mono- And Diglycerides, Natural Flavor, Beta-Carotene (Color), Vitamin A Palmitate], Salt, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil With Tbhq And Citric Acid As Preservatives). Contains 2% Or Less of: Margarine (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil With Tbhq And Citric Acid As Preservatives, Water, Mono- And Diglycerides [BHT, Citric Acid], Beta-Carotene For Color [Corn Oil, Tocopherol], Vitamin A Palmitate). Contains Soy, Wheat, Eggs, Milk.

Oh hi! You finally made it to the end 🙂 As seen above, I would prefer to stick to something without almost 100 ingredients! Happy Monday everyone!! xo


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