What are unprocessed, processed and ultra-processed foods?

Chicken meat and eggs are extraordinary foods because of their simplicity and the quality of their nutrients, especially in their ‘basic version’.



One of the best-known studies has focused on the classification of food in relation to the degree of ‘processing’. This is the Nova Classification, which divides food into four groups:

  • Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients
  • Group 3 – processed foods
  • Group 4 – ultra-processed foods


Group 1

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed foods are the edible parts of plants and animals, algae, mushrooms and water. Also included in this group are minimally processed foods, i.e., foods that have been modified using industrial methods such as freezing, drying, removal of unwanted parts, crushing, fractionation, milling, pasteurisation, (non-alcoholic) fermentation and other preservation techniques that maintain the integrity of the food without introducing salt, sugar, oils, fats or other culinary ingredients. Additives are not included in this group. For clarity, here are some examples of foods included in this group: fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen), cereals, fresh meat, milk, white yoghurt, pulses, eggs and natural spices.

Group 2

Processed culinary ingredients

Members of this group are ingredients that can be derived from group 1 by pressing, milling, refining and drying. Also included are substances extracted from group 1 or extracted ‘from nature’ for seasoning and cooking group 1 foods. These ingredients are free of additives, but may have added vitamins or minerals (example: iodized salt). Some examples: oils made by crushing seeds, nuts or fruits (as in the case of olive oil), butter, vinegar, starches, honey, salt, sugar, syrups extracted from trees.

Group 3
Processed foods

Here we find simple food products made by combining processed culinary ingredients (those in group 2 such as salt or sugar) with unprocessed foods (group 1).

In group 3 we therefore find food prepared or preserved by cooking, canning, bottling and non-alcoholic fermentation, including with additives to extend shelf life, to protect the properties of unprocessed food and prevent the spread of microorganisms as well as to make it more palatable. A few examples: fruit in syrup, cheese, tinned vegetables, salted nuts, dried or tinned fish. Also included in group 3 are bread, cakes, pastries, biscuits, snacks and some meat products if they are mainly prepared from group 1 foods with the addition of group 2 ingredients.

Group 4
Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are those processed by industrial techniques in which the unprocessed foods of group 1 generally make up only a small percentage of their ingredients or are even absent. In ultra-processed foods we often find food substances with no culinary use (e.g., hydrogenated oil, modified starch, high-fructose corn syrup…). Ultra-processed foods are often subject to special processing techniques (extrusion, moulding, pre-frying) with the insertion of additives defined as ‘cosmetic’ among which are those that improve taste and colour. Some examples of foodstuffs considered ultra-processed: carbonated soft drinks, margarine, reconstituted meat products, reconstituted fruit juices, vegetable-based meat substitutes and some cereals marketed ‘for breakfast’. Group 4 also includes certain bakery products, flavoured yoghurts, snacks, sweets and ready-to-warm meals (if they contain cosmetic additives and/or food substances of no culinary value).

Ultra-processed foods already account for more than half of the total food energy consumed in high-income countries and between one-fifth and one-third of the total food energy in middle-income countries.

Ultra-processed foods are in essence high in energy, high in sugars, unhealthy fats and salt and low in dietary fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals and induce high glycaemic responses and poor satiety, while fostering an intestinal environment that facilitates forms of inflammatory diseases.

The more ultra-processed foods we introduce into our diet the more we lower the nutritional quality of the overall diet and set the stage for advancing conditions favourable to obesity, hypertension, coronary and cerebrovascular diseases, metabolic syndromes, gastrointestinal disorders…

Ultra-processed foods are in other words not ‘real food’ but formulations of food substances that are sometimes modified even by chemical processes and reassembled into food and beverage products that are hyper-appetized and ready to consume using flavourings, colourings, emulsifiers and many other cosmetic additives and manufactured and disseminated by large multinational companies due to the fact that ultra-processing makes them very profitable, attractive even if intrinsically unhealthy in the broader nutritional sense.

The cost of beinght overweight

How to identify ultra-processed foods

Clearly identifying ultra-processed foods is sometimes not easy even for researchers and even less so for consumers because there is no obligation to indicate the production processes and their purpose.

It is, however, quite obvious to consider fresh vegetables, fruit, starchy tubers, pasteurised milk, refrigerated meat, vegetable oils, sugar, and salt as not ultra-processed.

Industrial breads made only with wheat flour, water, salt and yeast are processed foods, while those whose ingredient lists also include emulsifiers or colouring agents are ultra-processed.

In general, a product is ultra-processed if the list of ingredients (always mandatory) contains at least one element characteristic of the group of ultra-processed foods, i.e., food substances that are never or rarely used in cooking (such as cosmetic additives to make the final product palatable or more palatable).

There is as of today (January 2024) a mobile application


Created by the non-profit organisation Open Food Facts (https://it.openfoodfacts.org/), based in France, which makes it possible to identify among some 145,000 packaged products, the more than 75,000 ultra-processed ones.


To view more details and sources of this article:

 Link to attached document: ultra-processed-foods-what-they-are-and-how-to-identify-them


The editorial staff of M.A.C.