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productos ultraprocesados y alimentos saludables

Ultra-processed, processed, and natural products: who is who?

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A healthy and balanced diet, which provides us with all the nutrients we need, is essential for optimal health now and in the future.

However, consuming ultra-processed products has become every day for many of the population and jeopardises the proper nutrition we all need.

Below, we discuss processed and ultra-processed foods, which are healthy and harmful to our diet, and how to avoid over-consumption of these products.

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Processed foods and ultra-processed products

In general terms, processed foods have undergone one or more chemical, physical or microbiological processes that transform the products from their natural or raw state into food or ingredients.

There is no single definition, although all agree on the above.

One of the definitions we can find is that of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which considers processed food to be: any food that has undergone changes in its natural state; that is, any raw agricultural product that is washed, cleaned, ground, cut or chopped, pasteurised, cooked, canned, frozen, etc.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) also understands food processing as any method that converts fresh food into food products, including adding components to add vitamins and minerals to improve the nutritional quality of that food.

In any case, the processes to which these foodstuffs or products are subjected may have different objectives, such as:

  • Preserving food or inhibiting its degradation or spoilage.
  • Maintain their nutritional properties.
  • Maintain or improve food quality and nutritional properties (fortification).
  • To be able to offer products capable of meeting different nutritional needs.
  • Reduce food waste.

What are ultra-processed products?

The term “ultra-processed food” emerged in 2009. Since then, it has been used to refer to non-traditional food processing, replaced by industrial processing, and the presence or absence of certain components in food.

There is no legal standard defining ultra-processed products. However, they do have certain distinguishing characteristics, including:

  • These are products with a high degree of processing.
  • They usually have the particularity of including sugar, salt, starches, oils and/or fats, or other ingredients derived from the industrial processes to which they are subjected.
  • The processing of these foods is usually aimed at obtaining ready-to-eat products suitable to replace other unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
  • In addition to the immediacy of consumption, ultra-processed products are often processed to achieve greater appeal than their natural or unprocessed “analogues”, e.g. by enhancing their organoleptic properties (i.e. all the characteristics that are perceived through the senses).

Why shouldn’t we eat ultra-processed products?

Raw foods like fruits and vegetables have a higher antioxidant potential than ultra-processed foods.

Food processing can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, its nutritional properties and its antioxidant or satiating potential, among others.

For example, the refining of cereals reduces their antioxidant potential by removing the germ and bran fractions.

The consumption of ultra-processed foods is strongly linked to obesity and tends to displace healthy and more nutritious foods from the diet.

In addition, ultra-processed products alter the gut microbiota, which can considerably impact its balance. These products affect the micro-organism communities in our gut through their processing.

These, in many cases, lead to a reduction in the fibre content of plant-based foods. Consequently, when we consume a lot of ultra-processed foods, the fibre we ingest is insufficient to meet the gut microbiota requirements.

This situation favours an imbalance in the populations of intestinal micro-organisms, which, although they may not appear to be so, are fundamental to our health.

On the other hand, there is a close link between chronic non-communicable diseases and excessive intake of ingredients such as free sugars, fats, sodium and other additives. Ultra-processed foods may simultaneously include one or several of these ingredients, which is common.

The excessive consumption of these ingredients is largely due to the huge availability, advertising, promotion and affordability of ultra-processed products, which contain these components in large proportions.

Are processed foods good for our health?

The ideal would be to consume only fresh and natural products, but this is unfeasible for the vast majority of people for various reasons (economic, availability, storage, time, etc.), especially in the case of certain foods.

We have seen that processed food is not the same as an ultra-processed product.

In fact, there are many healthy processed food options that we can and should incorporate into our diets. For example, the milk we consume is a processed food essential in childhood.

Other minimally processed and/or healthy foods include roasted almonds, unsweetened Greek yoghurt or frozen spinach.

However, soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages are unhealthy, ultra-processed products that provide little or no nutrients to our bodies and are packed with potentially harmful ingredients.

Other processed and ultra-processed foods we should avoid or minimise in our diet are sweets, salty and sweet snacks, prepared baby foods, soups, sauces, biscuits, etc.

How to replace ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods generate some dependency for different reasons.

On the one hand, they have enhanced organoleptic characteristics, making them more attractive and tastier.

On the other hand, they tend to be cheaper and more readily available in any situation (rather than healthy, fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables).

In addition, ultra-processed foods require much less effort and time to prepare and are often ready to eat immediately or with minimal preparation (e.g. heating in the microwave).

All this encourages their consumption, but in the medium and long term, their effects on our health can be very negative.

To prevent this from happening, we should try to replace the consumption of these ultra-processed foods by eliminating them from our diet or restricting them to very specific occasions.

To do this, we can implement several strategies, including:

  • Spend time cooking at home, learning to cook if necessary and planning our meals if we do not have much time.

Today we have many resources that make it easier to plan and prepare dishes, such as kitchen robots, the possibility of online shopping, batch cooking or batch cooking, etc.

  • Replace ultra-processed sugar with natural and healthier options such as dates or date paste.
  • Respect meal times. In other words, eat when our body asks for it, in the right quantities and taking the necessary time.

As well as planning, sticking to mealtimes helps to prevent us from indulging in ultra-processed foods because we are in a hurry or arrive too hungry after skipping meals.

In short, dedicating time to our diet is a commitment to our health and well-being.

We must ensure that we provide our body with all the nutrients it needs at all times and stay away from products with little or no nutritional value.

This is especially important regarding products containing potentially harmful ingredients or ingredients in unhealthy quantities.

In short, we need to increase the intake of fresh produce and healthy processed foods and eliminate or minimise the consumption of ultra-processed products.

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