Packaged, ready-to-eat, short preparation time, long shelf life – this is more or less the list of requirements that many of us look for in the food products we buy – and it's no coincidence. The modern pace of life in the Western world, aggressive marketing campaigns of the food industry and the need to take advantage of surplus produce in a globalized world – all these are causing retailers to offer more and more instant foods – and to choose the faster option.
The globally accepted definition today divides food into four main food groups:
1. Minimally processed foods
First food group: unprocessed food or food that has undergone very little processing. This food group includes raw and natural foods, including food that has undergone basic processing like chopping, freezing, grinding etc.
2. Basic food ingredients
Second food group: basic food ingredients. In other words – staple foods which are usually added to the first food group. Examples are substances that can be found in every kitchen, including oil (olive, sunflower, canola, etc.), sugar (white or brown), salt and herbs and spices.
3. Homemade = raw + basic food ingredients
Third food group: products prepared and cooked at home from household ingredients that can be found in every food supply store. The official definition refers only to raw foods that are added with basic food ingredients (categories 1 and 2); food cooked with herbs and spices (at home, in a restaurant or food manufacturer). Most cooked foods belong to this group and include soups (not soup powder), cooked chicken or fish, couscous, meatballs, cooked or stir-fry vegetables and even homemade schnitzel.
Fourth food group: ultra-processed foods. These are products made of ingredients you'd be hard pressed to find in a home kitchen such as extracts and sophisticated industrial additives (that change or enhance color, texture and flavor) that are highly palatable and that can affect your natural sense of satiety. The ultra-processed foods are usually packaged, ready to eat anywhere anytime, or need only quick preparation (by adding hot water, heating in a microwave etc.).
The foods that are included in this group are: various types of processed meat: salamis, sausages, pastramis, some minced meat products meats of various shapes (certain minced meat products are premade and prepacked like hamburgers, kebabs and schnitzels in various shapes and forms).
Sweetened foods: chocolate products with or without additions, cakes, cookies, juices (including fresh or pasteurized), ice cream, sugar-sweetened "soft" drinks (carbonated or flat, including iced tea and flavored water) and diet drinks with artificial sweeteners. Savory snacks (potato chips or corn-based chips, peanut butter, cheese etc.) and candies.
It is important to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods as much as possible.
Pastrami, sausages and processed smoked meats are included in the fourth food group of ultra-processed foods.
Why do we eat more processed foods?
Food colorings, flavor and aroma additives, alongside the fat, sugar and salt, make us eat more than we really need.
The availability and immediacy of ultra-processed foods is encouraged in the form of "snacks" and not as part of a regular meal (like snacks, breakfast cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages, ready-to-heat pre-made dishes, instant soups, etc.).
Intensive marketing and emphatic branding, including use of opinion leaders (celebrities), who encourage consumption of ultra-processed foods as part of desirable or normative behavior.
Streamlining industrial food preparation, transport and distribution to retailers means that in many cases ultra-processed food is cheaper than fresh food.
Why is ultra-processed food not recommended?
The effect of food on health is measured not only by its nutritional values, but also by the way it is prepared, the extent of processing and how it is consumed. Ultra-processed foods are usually produced, branded and marketed in ways designed to increase their consumption, unrelated to the body's natural sense of hunger and nutritional needs.
This food has undergone complex industrial processing with the purpose of making the food more appealing - "eating with the eyes", enhancing its taste, and improving packaging and marketing. Large amounts of sugar and salt, for example, will make us want more of the product. A prepackaged snack will often make us put it in a bag when we go for a walk or to the playground, instead of healthier options. Ultra-processed meat products for quick preparation in the freezer (you already know how this goes...).
In recent years, research is increasing which has shown a correlation between the degree of food processing and its impact on health
Overconsumption of ultra-processed foods (food group 4) in place of the consumption of less processed foods (food groups 1, 2 and 3) has been found to be associated with an increase in obesity, causing an increase in chronic morbidity and an increased risk of morbidity (by at least 10%) from several types cancer. Overconsumption of ultra-processed foods also changes the microbiome (the composition of bacteria in the digestive tract), causes inflammations in the body, increases morbidity and premature aging.