What is the difference between processed and hyper-processed food?

There is no objective reason to equate food processing with unhealthiness. But, some specific aspects of food processing may be detrimental to health, for example, by generating trans fatty acids or reducing the micronutrient availability. But when it comes to cured meats like ham, salami, and sausages the processing part is of little concern.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “processing” as “performing a series of mechanical or chemical operations on something to change or preserve it”. Some processing steps are harmless or may even be beneficial, for instance, to allow for preservation or to enhance the bioavailability of micronutrients or other beneficial compounds. Binary oppositions such as “processed/- vs. natural“, of which one term is more highly valued than the other, have been exposed by post-structural theory as mere cultural constructs rather than foundational categories we can confidently rely on.

Processed foods are made with two or three ingredients and processing they have undergone  may be as simple as as cooking and storage. This category includes, for example, canned vegetables and legumes, cured meat, bread, beer and wine.

But we must not confuse processed foods with hyper-processed foods, such as vegan burgers, where additives such as stabilizers or preservatives are added after a highly industrial transformation process mimicking real foods’ sensory qualities or masking undesirable sensory qualities. The consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as fake plant-based meat, has been associated with health problems, higher mortality and cardiovascular diseases.

This is not the case for cured meat, which is just processed and where adding substances to foods for easy storage is not a chemical or industrial invention but an ancient tradition. The use of salt was and still is a way to preserve meat and inhibit the growth of bacteria. Examples of adding substances to food include adding a juice, such as lemon, to prevent the blackening of a vegetable; using the smoke from wood, especially ones rich in resin; and, in the specific case of meat, using salt. The ancient Romans observed that saltpetre improved the production of cured meats and sausages, avoiding the browning of the meat and preventing the proliferation of unwanted bacteria.

Furthermore, some ingredients used to produce meat products have sensory, technological, and safety advantages, which are mostly overlooked.. For instance, nitrate in fermented meats leads to both colour and flavour development and enhanced food safety.

P-It is precisely for this reason that nitrates and nitrites are added in controlled quantities in producing some cured meats. In 2017, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed in a scientific opinion to the European Commission that the levels of nitrites and nitrates added to food are safe and that “in most processed meat products, the addition of nitrite or nitrate is necessary to prevent the development and production of toxins for C. botulinum“.

According to EFSA, the existing safety levels for nitrites and nitrates intentionally added to meat and other foods sufficiently protect consumers. Consumer exposure to nitrites and nitrates as food additives is safe for all population groups. Community rules have also defined the maximum quantity of 150 milligrammes of nitrite per kilogramme of product and 150 milligrammes of nitrate per kilogramme. In addition to being safe, these values are extremely low compared to the nitrates legally allowed in vegetables naturally rich in this substance. It should be noted that nitrates are a component of many plant foods, such as spinach and lettuce, which are ten times higher, around 2000-7000 milligrammes per kilogramme. Lettuce contains 3 grammes per kg for example.

On top of this, it has been shown that these substances have specific physiological functions in the human body, such as vasodilation and blood pressure control. Some antioxidants, such as vitamin C, inhibit the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. For this reason, they are often added to nitrates and nitrites in sausages to take advantage of their protective effect.

Thanks to refrigerators and microbiological knowledge, compliance with hygiene rules, and exploiting the bacteriostatic properties of spices and herbs such as garlic, pepper and chilli, we can continue to produce safe cured meat using very few preservatives. In the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) hams like Parma ham, for example, the prolonged maturing process makes nitrates unnecessary, which are no longer used in these products.

So, how can we distinguish a processed versus a hyper-processed product? Quite simply, by spending a few minutes reading the ingredients on the labels, it is immediately possible to identify an ultra-processed food rich in salt, sugar, saturated fats, preservatives, thickeners, dyes and various additives such as those in modern junk food. In general nutritionists recommend to eat real food and avoid hyper-processed imitations.