Distinguishing Food from Food-like Products

INTRODUCTION: National dietary guidelines in both Canada and the US focus on the variety of foods available in each of several defined ‘food groups’ and make recommendations about “healthy eating” based on how much of particular nutrients are in specific foods.  In Canada for example, foods that are rich in saturated fat, sodium or sugar are said to undermine health. This type of classification results in dishes rich in cheese and fried chicken both being deemed as unhealthy, as both are high in saturated fat and sodium. 

This article outlines an internationally established way of classifying foods that is based on the degree of food processing they have undergone — which I believe provides a better framework to help people to choose which foods they should aim to eat most often.

Many of us have heard the alarming health statistics in both the US and Canada, but they are worth repeating.

Obesity has risen in Canada from < 10% in 1970-1972 to almost 15% in 1989, to over 23% in 2004 [1,2]. That is, in the early 1970s, only one in 10 people in Canada was obese and now almost 1 in 4 people in Canada are obese [3]. The prevalence of obesity among American adults is almost 40% as of 2015-6 [4]. 

And it’s not only adults.

As of 2015, over 10% (1 in 10) children between the ages of 5 and 17 years of age in Canada were obese[3] and that figure rises to 20% (1 in 5 kids) in the United States [4]. 

It’s not only obesity.

As of 2015,  >25% of Canadians adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure[3] and as of 2013, >30% of American adults have high blood pressure [5]. That’s 1 in 4 in Canada and 1 in 3 in the US [4] with hypertension; a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke.

Over 8% in Canada have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease (CHD) [3] and in the US, coronary heart disease accounts for ~13% of deaths as of 2016 [6] and over 8% of Canadians has diabetes [3] and in the US, almost 9.5% of Americans has diabetes [7].

What has changed over this time period to account for this? 

Too Many Carbs?

When I first started writing articles about obesity and the increased rates of metabolic diseases ~ 4 years ago, I thought it was largely related to the increased in carbohydrate content of the diet due to changes in the national dietary guidelines that occurred in Canada and the US in 1977. To some degree there is a relationship between these, but it is not as clear-cut as I once thought.

Industrial Seed Oils (Polyunsaturated Vegetable Oil)

With further reading in the scientific literature, I came to believe that it was the inclusion of novel “seed oils” (also called “polyunsaturated vegetable oil”) including canola, soybean, corn and cottonseed oil — along with too much carbohydrate in the diet that lay at the root of obesity and metabolic disease and while this is certainly part of the story, I was still missing a vital piece of the puzzle.

Manufactured Food-like Products

As national dietary guidelines in both Canada and the US in 1977 focused on reducing dietary intake of fat — especially saturated fat, food manufacturers sought to fill the gap left by the removal of butter, cream, lard and tallow (saturated fats) from the diet, and began to manufacture products that were made up of both refined carbohydrate and industrial seed oils (“polyunsaturated vegetable oils”). The food industry heavily marketed these manufactured products and promoted them as being “low in saturated fat”, which was perceived by the general public as being equivalent to “healthy”.

Since the mid-1980s, the food supplies of high-income countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and the UK have been dominated by pre-packaged, ready-to-eat “convenience foods” [13]. In fact, the percentage of energy (calories) in the diet of Canadians of these “ultra-processed foods” rose from <25% in 1938 (when manufactured products such as Crisco and soy oil were first created) to almost 54% in 2011 (9). Similar trends have been observed worldwide (10-12).

It is my now my conviction that it has been the over-consumption of these ultra-processed “convenience foods” that are high in both refined carbohydrate and seed oils which precipitated the huge deterioration of the Western diet, and which has fueled the concurrent epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, such as hypertension and coronary heart disease [8].

Hundreds of thousands of people in Canada, and millions worldwide are metabolically unwell because the bulk of the diet has centered around eating these manufactured food-like products — from our morning sweetened cereal or spreads on toast to the burger with ‘plastic cheese’ and French fries we grab in place of real food.

So how do we distinguish real food from food-like products?

The NOVA Food Classification system – defining “processed food”

From the time food is harvested to when it is eaten, most food is processed in some way. Some of this processing may be as simple as peeling and chopping it, to cooking it, but food doesn’t become “unhealthy” just because it is processed. The issue is how much it is processed.

NOVA is a food classification system developed in Brazil and used in the US, Canada and other countries around the world to define the level of food processing.

The NOVA definition of types of food processing are as follows [13]:

Minimally processed foods are defined as ”unprocessed foods altered in ways that do not add or introduce any new substance (such as fats, sugars, or salt) but often involve removal of parts of the food.”  Examples of these include fresh, dry, or frozen vegetables, root vegetables, grains and legumes, fruits and nuts, and meats, fish, seafood, eggs, and milk [13]. For the most part, minimal processing is what’s involved in preparing it for eating and/or improving its palatability.

Processed foods are defined as ”foods made by adding fats, oils, sugars, salt, and other culinary ingredients to minimally processed foods to make them more durable and usually more palatable, and by various methods of preservation“.  They include simple breads and cheeses; salted, pickled or cured meats, fish and seafood; and vegetables, legumes, fruits and animal foods preserved in oil, brine or syrup.

Canned fish in oil would fall in this category, as would hummus (ground chickpeas with sesame seed butter, garlic and lemon juice), as well as bacon and sausages.

These foods can be part of a healthy diet, depending on how they are prepared and used in dishes and meals [13] and how much of these are eaten at a time.

Ultra processed foods are defined as ”not modified foods, but formulations of industrial ingredients and other substances derived from foods, plus additives. They mostly contain little if any intact food. The purpose of ultra-processing is to create products that are convenient (durable, ready-to-eat, -drink or -heat), attractive (hyper- palatable), and profitable (cheap ingredients). Their effect all over the world is to displace all other food groups. They are usually branded assertively, packaged attractively, and marketed intensively.

Foundations for Healthy Eating using Degree of Food Processing

I like to define foods as being either “everyday foods” or “sometimes foods”.  The issue is how much and how often we eat them.

“Everyday Foods”

Choosing foods to make up a meal should aim to include mostly unprocessed foods (whole foods in their original state) and minimally processed foods. This is how our grand-parents and great-grandparents ate (when obesity, hypertension and diabetes rates were a fraction of what they are now!).

Another way to determine what foods to include in a meal is to eat food that your great-grandparents would recognize as food.

“Sometimes Foods”

For people who are metabolically healthy, eating “processed foods” such as breads and cheese,  salted, pickled or cured foods (including meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, legumes) and whole foods preserved in oil or brine are perfectly fine to add to unprocessed foods (whole foods in their original state) and minimally processed foods to make up a meal.

For those who are already overweight or metabolically unhealthy, focusing on making up a meal of real, whole foods in their original state (i.e. unprocessed foods) and minimally processed foods is best, while limiting processed foods. How much bacon, olives, bread and cheese can be eaten really depends on a person’s metabolic health. This is where having a Meal Plan designed by a Dietitian is helpful because everybody’s needs are different.

Ultra-Processed Food

Ultra-processed food isn’t food. They are products made from a combination of refined carbohydrates (including sugar) and seed oils. These are convenient, hyper-palatable and cheap, and displace real food in the diet.

According to a 2015 study, some of the most addictive foods are in this category; including breakfast cereal, muffins, pizza, cheeseburgers, French fries and fried chicken — as are the desserts that often eaten with them including chocolate, ice cream, cookies and cake, and the soda we wash them down with. Even our favourite snacks like popcorn and chips are really nothing more than a combination of refined carbs and industrial seed oil eaten in place of real food.

Fifteen Most Addictive Fast Foods

These ultra-processed food-like products are intended to displace real food in the diet and as such are not something we should consider as components for making up a meal.

Does that mean we should never eat a slice of pizza or a cheeseburger? Of course not. But let’s be fully aware that this is not real food. It is something we eat in place of real food.

As well, there is a huge difference between a homemade burger with real melted cheddar cheese on top — sandwiched between fresh leaf lettuce and tomato, and what can be picked up at a 1000 drive-throughs in cities around the Western world.

National Food Guidelines as foundations for healthy eating

National food guidelines in both Canada and the US have traditionally categorized food based on the variety available in each food group; including grains and cereals, vegetables &/or fruit. milk and dairy, and meats and alternatives.

New Canada Food Guide (2019)

In the case of the new Canada Food Guide, it recently eliminated the Milk and Dairy food group and combined those foods with Protein foods. The other two food groups are now Grains and Vegetables and Fruit.

The new Guide centers it’s dietary advice around 3 “Guidelines”.


Guideline 1 of the new Canada Food Guide focuses on eating from the different food groups and stresses that Canadians should eat plant-based foods more often because they lower intake of saturated fat. 

Guideline 2 of the new Canada Food Guide encourages Canadians to limit processed or prepared foods and states the reason is because they contribute excess sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Based on this definition, dishes made with lots of cheese and fried chicken are high in saturated fat and sodium, and thus are categorize as foods that undermine healthy eating.

Does eating cheese really undermine healthy eating?

Or a rib steak?

Or milk?

As covered in previous articles I’ve written on the new Canada Food Guide,  I am not convinced that there is a compelling reason to limit real, whole food simply because it is high in saturated fat.

Guideline 3 of the new Canada Food Guide encourages Canadians to learn how to prepare and cook their own food and promotes the use of nutritional food labels as a tool to help them make informed choices.

The fact is, there are no nutrition food labels on unprocessed food (real, whole foods).

Choosing Healthy Food

As I’ve said in prior articles, Canadians can use the new Canada Food Guide to make up healthy meals by focusing on the part of Guideline 1 which encourages them to eat “real, whole food” and on the part of Guideline 2 which encourages them to “limit processed or prepared foods” — and by defining “processed foods” using the NOVA category of “ultra-processed foods” given above. In this way they will be able to design meals with a wide range of healthy and interesting foods.

Defining what is healthy based on how much a food is processed makes good sense. In this way people are free to add bread and cheese,  and salted, pickled or cured foods (including meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, legumes) to their unprocessed foods (whole foods in their original state) and minimally processed foods to make up an interesting and healthful meal.

Furthermore, categorizing food using the NOVA categories based on the degree of food processing avoids lumping foods made with lots of real cheese with fried chicken as those that undermine healthy eating, based on their saturated fat and sodium content.

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