images of healthy food and processed food

Food processing; the good, the bad and the ugly

3 June 2024
Navigating nutrition in a processed world
Blog for Life is a series of blogs and opinion pieces from the team at CPC RPA Health for Life Program, our clinical, research, culinary and education experts developing resources for healthy longevity. Here, Dr Rosilene Ribeiro examines processed foods.

Ever noticed how much food processing impacts what ends up on our plates? It's a game-changer, offering up convenient choices. Yet, it's important to recognise the drawbacks behind these seemingly perfect choices.

Food processing plays a major role in shaping our diets, offering convenient options that appear to suit our various needs and budgets. But it's not all positive as some methods in the processing of foods may strip nutrients or add unhealthy substances. Finding the right balance between accessibility and health is key.

While food processing has a long history, giving us staples like wholemeal bread, low-fat yogurt and canned fish, modern advancements have led to aisles filled with highly-processed foods our grandparents wouldn't recognise.

NOVA classification

So, it can be challenging to identify nutritious options in a landscape dominated by ultra-processed foods. This is not to say that all processed foods are ‘bad’ but as a rule of thumb, the less processed, the better. The NOVA classification system, endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), breaks it down into four groups:

  1. unprocessed or minimally processed foods: fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, and meats – the basics
  2. processed culinary ingredients: oils, sugars, and salt, the essentials for cooking
  3. processed foods: canned veggies or frozen meals – familiar, with a little help
  4. ultra-processed foods: packaged snacks or sugary drinks – convenient, but not the most nutritious.

It may appear obvious that most of our intake should be unprocessed as these foods are usually packed with important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre but our low level of consumption of unprocessed foods is shocking. In Australia national health surveys indicate that only 6.5 percent of the adult population meet the recommended daily intake for vegetables.

On the other hand, approximately 40 percent of our daily calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods. This food group – as the name indicates – is the most processed of them all. In fact, it is so processed, that in many instances the food neither resembles its natural form nor its nutritional content. 

Ultra-processed and hyper-palatable

Loaded with excessive salt, saturated or trans fats, refined sugar, additives and empty calories, and lacking protein and fibre, regular consumption of these foods can lead to weight gain, heart disease, and various cancers, among many other conditions. Despite these risks, the appeal of ultra-processed foods persists due to their hyper-palatability, perceived affordability and aggressive marketing tactics.

Processed culinary ingredients and certain processed foods also play a significant role in our diet. Take frozen fruits and vegetables, for example. Contrary to popular belief, they often boast higher nutritional value compared to their ‘fresh’ counterparts, which have often travelled many airmiles before landing on supermarket shelves. This extended travel time can lead to a loss of freshness and, most importantly, nutrients, making them not only less nutritious but also considerably more expensive.


So, how can we limit consumption of ultra processed food?

Visual inspection

Take a moment to examine your food. If it looks very different from its original form, chances are it has undergone extensive processing.

Label examination

Look at the ingredient list: a lengthy list often indicates a high degree of processing. Look for products with minimal ingredients, identifiable components, and minimal added sugars, saturated or trans fats, sodium, and artificial additives.

Smart snacking

Recognise that many commonly consumed ultra-processed foods fall under the category of snacks or desserts. Choose whole food alternatives like fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, or sliced vegetables paired with hummus instead of reaching for processed options like chips, biscuits, or chocolate bars.

Swap ingredients

Try substituting processed ingredients in recipes like refined grains, sugars, and oils with healthier alternatives such as wholegrains, natural sweeteners like honey, and plant-based oils like extra virgin olive or avocado oil. This recipe for Wholemeal sugarless muffin created by our Healthy Longevity Chef, Marzio Lanzini, is a great place to start.


All food groups have their place in our diets, the key lies in rebalancing our consumption. Ideally, unprocessed foods should take centre stage, making up the bulk of our daily intake.

Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, should make cameo appearances, enjoyed sparingly as occasional treats. After all, who can resist chocolate?

The CPC RPA Health for Life Program is a partnership between the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Local Health District.

Dr Rosilene Ribeiro

dark haired woman smiling at the camera, blue dress
Dietitian, CPC RPA Health for Life Program
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