Processed foods: what to avoid?

By Nutrition Expert – Trupti Gurav,Mumbai

Processed food is food that’s changed in any way from its natural state. Processed food includes food that has been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving or preparing in different ways. Any time you can cook, bake or prepare food.

Processed foods are generally thought to be inferior to unprocessed foods. They may bring to mind a packaged food item containing many ingredients, perhaps even artificial colours, flavours, or other chemical additives. [1, 2]

Food Processing includes process under which any raw product of agriculture, dairy, animal husbandry, meat, poultry or fishing is transformed through a process (involving employees, power, machines or money) in such a way that its original physical properties undergo a change and the transformed product has commercial value and is suitable for human and animal consumption.

It also includes the process of value addition to produce products through methods such as preservation, addition of food additives, drying etc. with a view to preserve food substances in an effective manner, enhance their shelf life and quality. [3]

Food processing sector is one of the largest sectors in India in terms of production, growth, consumption, and export. India’s food processing sector covers fruit and vegetables; spices; meat and poultry; milk and milk products, alcoholic beverages, fisheries, plantation, grain processing and other consumer product groups like confectionery, chocolates and cocoa products soya-based products, mineral water, high protein foods etc. Since liberalization in Aug’91 proposals for projects, have been proposed in various segments of the food and agro-processing industry. Besides this, Government has also approved proposals for joint ventures; foreign collaboration, industrial licenses and 100% export oriented units envisaging an investment. Out of this, foreign investment is over Rs.10, 000 crores.

India’s exports of Processed Food was Rs. 31111.90 Crores in 2018-19, which including the share of products like Mango Pulp, Processed Vegetables, Cucumber and Gherkins, Processed Fruits, Juices & Nuts, Pulses, Groundnuts, Guargum, Jaggery & Confectionary, Cocoa Products, Cereal Preparations, Alcoholic Beverages, Miscellaneous Preparations, and Milled Products.

The Indian food processing industry is primarily export orient. India’s geographical situation gives it the unique advantage of connectivity to Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea. One such example indicating India’s location advantage is the value of trade in agriculture and processed food between India and Gulf region. [4]

Status of Food Processing In India

India produces more fruits & vegetables in comparison to food grains.  With 268.9 Million tonnes of horticultural production in 2012-13.

  • India is the world’s second largest producer of fruits & vegetables after China but hardly 2% of the produce is processed.
  • In spite of a large production base, the level of processing is low (less than 10%). Approximately 2% of fruits and vegetables, 8% marine, 35% milk, 6% poultry are processed. Lack of adequate process able varieties continues to pose a significant challenge to this sector.

As per APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), India loses Rs. 13,000 to 15,000 Crore every year on waste of fruits and vegetables. The key reason for higher wastage of fruits and vegetables is non-availability facilities of temperature controlled storage. Only 2% of the perishable produce has that facility. [5, 6]

Categories of Processed Foods

A popular system to classify processed foods was introduced in 2009, called the NOVA classification which seeks to relate food processing as the primary driver of diet quality. [7, 8]

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed foods include the natural edible food parts of plants and animals. Minimally processed foods have been slightly altered for the main purpose of preservation but which does not substantially change the nutritional content of the food. Examples include cleaning and removing inedible or unwanted parts, grinding, refrigeration, pasteurization, fermentation, freezing, and vacuum-packaging.

This allows the food to be stored for a greater amount of time and remain safe to eat. Many fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk fall into this category.

As stated, most foods go through some sort of processing. Minimally processed foods such as bagged carrots, chopped lettuce and raw nuts are healthy and the processing they have undergone are mostly for sake of convenience.

2. Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients are substances obtained directly from unprocessed or minimally processed foods or from nature. They are altered by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding and in other manners so that they can be used in the cooking process.

They are typically not eaten on their own but used to prepare minimally processed foods. Examples include oils from plants, seeds, and nuts, or flour and pastas formed from whole grains and sugar obtained from the cane, syrup from maple trees.

3. Processed foods

Also known as “Lightly Processed Foods” this category includes foods like tomatoes, green beans, tuna, and berries that are canned or frozen soon after harvesting. They may have one or two added ingredients, such as salt, sugars or oils and seldom have more than 3 or 4 ingredients.

Commons foods such as breads, some canned fruits and vegetables, cheeses, canned fish and pastas are examples of lightly processed foods. Packaged items with only a few high-quality added ingredients (e.g., herbs, spices, oils) might also be considered lightly processed, such as some pasta sauces, and salad dressings.

4.Ultra-processed foods

Also commonly referred to as “highly processed foods,” these are foods from the prior group that go beyond the incorporation of salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colours and flavours and preservatives that promote shelf stability, preserve texture, and increase palatability. Many foods in this category are called “Junk Food”.

Several processing steps using multiple ingredients comprise the ultra-processed food. It is speculated that these foods are designed to specifically increase cravings so that people will overeat them and purchase more.

They are typically ready-to-eat with minimal additional preparation. Not all but some of these foods tend to be low in fiber and nutrients. Examples are sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, and breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners, and luncheon meats.

Nearly all the food in this category is unhealthy and eating too many foods in this category increases the risk not only of obesity and diabetes and they are associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.

Some Processed Food [9]

  • Sun-dried product– Food products made by drying them under the sun have been in use in Indian homes. Example, vegetables, fruits, green chillies, chips, fish and kachoris have been sun-dried to make them last long and can be use in off seasons and save time of the home maker. These products are tasty and require minimum cooking time.
  • Pickles – These ready to eat convenience foods and which added spice to meals and act as an appetizer. They are made at home and have various combinations.
  • Jams, preserves and jellies – Jams and jellies made by heat-treating fruit pulp and filtrate with sugar so yield semi-solid spreads. They make the ready to use spread to be had with breads. They are excellent to quench the in between meal hunger.
  • Dehydrated foods – They are subjected to mechanical dehydrators and packed attractively in cartons for storage and sale. Prior to being used they have to be treating with water for rehydration and cooked according to the instructions. These mixes have made so many recipes so easy to cook that they have made a permanent place on breakfast, lunch and dinner tables. Powders for making south Indian dishes, soups, dhokla and bakery products along with cakes are all dehydrated food products. They are prepared commercially and need expertise.
  • Heat treated foods –The heat treatment meted out to the causes the dextrinisation of starches making the food easily digestible. It has been a common practice in Indian homes to roast groundnuts and other nuts, Bengal gram, bajra and sesame seeds. They can be consumed in the salted form as such or served as an accompaniment. Puffed rice and Bengal gram is an excellent combination in making bhel puri, a nutritious snack which can be prepared very easily.
  • Canned foods – These products keep in good condition for a long time, have good shelf life and can be stored easily. They also resist spoilage. Meat products, fish, fruits, vegetables and pulses all come in the form of cans. Fruit juices, soups and other fluid products are also canned. They save the time to a large extent.
  • Fully processed convenience foods/ Ready to Eat foods –these days many companies have come up with fully processed ready to eat recipes. Cooked spaghetti with sauce, noodles, fried rice, chowmein, rajmah, and mutter panner, palak paneer all come in packets which just have to be heated and are ready to be served. They are either packed in retort pouches, vacuum sealed packages or in the frozen state in polythene. They have all the spices and additives already added and require no cooking. Potato chips, namkeens, puri, biscuits all are part of this range.

Advantages and disadvantages of processed food


The benefits food processing. [10,11]

  • It provides direct and indirect employment opportunities, because it acts as a bridge between Agriculture and Manufacturing.
  • With the rise in demand for agri-products there will be commensurate rise in the price paid to the farmer, thereby increasing the income. Food processing will require different types of inputs thus creating an incentive for the farmer to grow and diversify crops.
  • Processed foods when fortified with vitamins and minerals can reduce the nutritional gap in the population.
  • Reduce food wastage.
  • It is an important source of foreign exchange. For e.g. Indian Basmati rice is in great demand in Middle Eastern countries.
  • Processing increases the shelf life of the food thus keeping supplies in tune with the demand thereby controlling food-inflation. 
  • Enhances the quality and taste of food thereby bringing more choices in food basket.
  • There are products that have added vitamins or minerals that help cover the recommended daily intake (IDR).
  • When you do not have time to cook or you just do not know how to do it, there is a great variety of packages that are sold with processed food that is already cut or that only needs to be heated. For this reason they are a good alternative when you have to be more efficient over time.
  • Processed foods are easy to get, as they are available in all seasons and at all stores. [10, 11]


Food processing also has drawbacks. [12, 13, 14]

  • Depending on the degree of processing, many nutrients can be destroyed or removed. Peeling outer layers of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may remove plant nutrients (phytochemicals) and fiber.
  • Heating or drying foods can destroy certain vitamins and minerals. Although food manufacturers can add back some of the nutrients lost, it is impossible to recreate the food in its original form.
  • Some food preservation processes require adding sugar, salt or fat to achieve better conservation. And this of course increases the content of sugar, salt and fat in the diet of individuals.
  • There are many processed foods that contain a high amount of calories from carbohydrates and fat, but little protein, vitamins and minerals.
  • Processed foods are obtained from laboratories and not nature. The foods are genetically modified and may cause gastrointestinal disorders, infertility and can damage your organs.
  • Frequent intake of processed foods can make people become angry and irritable. Consumption of natural whole foods can help level out your mood, sustain energy levels and leave you feeling content and relaxed.
  • The tran’s fats and sugar present in processed items can cause inflammation, an unhealthy condition that leads to asthma.
  • Daily munching of processed foods promotes aging and kidney damage as they contain phosphates and genetically engineered ingredients.

This study is funded by Helena Sandoval-Insausti; available in The Journals of Gerontology, 6, June 2020, the aim of this study was to assess the relationship between ultra-processed food intake and incident frailty in community-dwelling older adults. And they concluded that; Ultra-processed food intake has been associated with chronic conditions and mortality. Consumption of ultra-processed foods is strongly associated with frailty risk in older adults. Substituting unprocessed or minimally processed foods for ultra-processed foods would play an important role in the prevention of age-related frailty.


The processing techniques foods have been part of the innovation for the production, storage and distribution of food. So you can gain a lot with the advantages that it confers, but it is very important that your diet is not based exclusively on processed foods. It is necessary to promote a natural diet or minimal processing.  The current lifestyle conditions to select processed foods, so reviewing labels continuously will help us make better decisions to maintain good health.

To re-balance the diet or make it more healthful, a person can replace ultra-processed foods with whole foods, including grains, nuts, seeds, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.



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