The processing of a food or beverage includes an array of technologies and processes to transform raw food materials and ingredients into consumer food products. Reasons for food processing include preservation, enhancing flavour or ensuring food safety.
The processing of a food can create change in the quality and attributes of the product. In some cases, these changes are intentional and provide improvements in the nutrient content, texture, appearance, and ﬂavour of the product. In other cases, the changes may simply make the product different, without improving or changing its quality.3
Defining a processed food
The term processed food does not have a consistent definition. At its most basic, it could refer to any food that has undertaken any process, such as chopping, freezing, canning or cooking. This is recognised in NHS live well advice10.
However, more generally, processed foods are taken to mean foods which have had other foods or ingredients added to them. These additives can be to extend shelf-life or improve palatability, or to fortify the food with nutrients and minerals. Processing may also involve the inclusion of less healthy additives, such as salt, sugar or saturated fat. Processed foods with high amounts of fat, sugar and salt are also referred to as High Fat, Sugar and Salt foods (HFSS), although the two terms are not interchangeable. Consumers are recommended to limit the amount of HFSS foods that they consume as part of a healthy diet.
The NOVA classification7 created the definition of an “ultra-processed” food, distinct from processed food. This term describes the level of processing that has been involved to produce a “food product”, which in their view contains little in the way of whole foods (Category 1 in the NOVA definition). The full tables of NOVA classifications can be found in the appendix of this statement.
Consumer studies identify there is a lack of awareness of the benefits that some processing methods offer, and that the public have a pejorative view of processed foods. It has been noted that many consumers feel avoiding processed foods is “healthier”4.
Yet there is inconsistency among consumer understanding of what constitutes a processed food. They often do not regard highly processed yet staple foods, such as bread and cheese, as processed,5 whereas novel food processing technologies often create concern. Many presume unknown and potentially harmful health effects, with a lack of knowledge about novel technologies being a major barrier to their acceptance.6
Concerns have also been raised about the inconsistency in the way in which the NOVA classification of “ultra-processed” has been applied9.
Role of processed food in diet
For those choosing to reduce their meat and fish consumption, or choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for health, ethical or environmental sustainability reasons, processed food may play an important role in the diet. Replacements for meat, fish and dairy can support individuals to replace nutrients where products are high in protein and fortified. Many will be defined as “processed” or “ultra-processed”.
It is clear that some processed foods can play a role in a well-balanced diet as per The Eatwell Guide8. However, the same guide recommends limiting the consumption of processed foods that are HFSS products.
Those at risk of malnutrition will benefit from energy dense foods. Therefore, the inclusion of processed foods with higher levels of fat and sugar may be useful to increase intakes of energy (kcals). Older adults, and those with limited cooking skills may rely on processed and ultra-processed food to meet their nutritional needs.
Food fortification is the addition of vitamins and minerals to increase the micronutrient density in a food to support people in achieving their daily requirements. For example, the fortification of breakfast cereal with B vitamins and iron, and the fortification of white flour with Iron, Niacin and Thiamin. Such fortification can lead foods to be categorized as processed or ultra-processed, but it is important to ensure that consumers are aware of the positive benefits of this form of processing.
For more information on the BDA’s views on food fortification, please see our Food Fortification Policy Statement