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Processed vs ultra-processed foods

Nearly all the food we eat is processed in some way. Peel a potato and you’ve processed it, cook it and you’ve processed it, make cream into butter and you’ve processed it, squeeze the oil from olives and you’ve processed them. All those sorts of things are fine – although eating the skin of a potato is good practise but makes me cringe for mash!

To juice or not to juice

Processing whole food per se is not much of an issue, and is necessary in lots of cases and even good in some, like tomatoes – when you cook them their lycopene becomes more bio-available. But it does affect the way your body deals with it. For example, turning fruit and vegetables into juices breaks down their cellular structure – imagine cutting a whole orange in half, you can see the little cells within that each contain the juice. When you eat that orange as segments your body has to break down the fibrous cell casing to get at the juice, so the whole orange pieces don’t cause your blood sugar to rise super-fast in the same way that orange juice does.

By juicing the orange the machine breaks down those cell walls so the juice and all its sugars go straight in to your blood stream and spike blood sugar. Plus your gut misses out on the benefit of breaking it down.

Give your gut a workout

Your intestines are muscular, they need a workout or some ‘pushback’ in order to keep the muscles strong. Fibre in foods acts like a punchbag for your intestine, giving it a good resistance workout. Processing the life out of fibre before you eat it does not give the same benefit.

Another example would be smooth peanut butter against crunchy, all the ‘knobble’ is processed out. Better to have the knobble 😀. Yet another is white rice against wholegrain or wild rice. White rice has had the guts (and goodness) knocked out of it. Your gut has to do pretty much zero to break it down and once it does there’s very little there to do you any good. Wholegrain or wild rice takes far longer to break down and contains a good range of nutrients.

Last one, think of Ready Brek against regular porridge. The Ready Brek oats have been bashed and crushed to tiny particles – hello massive blood sugar spike – porridge made with whole oats is far harder for you to break down, which is GOOD!


The degree to which you cook (another form of processing) foods is also an important factor. Boil pasta til it’s really soft and it will enter your bloodstream as sugar like billio. Cook it al dente and your gut has to work harder to mush it, so blood sugar is steadier.

Ultra-processed foods

The real villain though is commercially processed food, or ultra-processed foods as it’s referred to. That’s where the food manufacturer has put in artificial additives as well as using highly processed ingredients such as white flour, sugar, refined fats and so on.

A classic example is mass produced bread. Look at the label to see a great example of an ultra processed food – preservatives, palm oil, emulsifiers all papped into horribly-made plastic bread. Unkind to gut and unkind to health, and applies to whatever colour of bread it is.

Other stuff like McDonald’s, KFC, Domino’s, Krispy Kremes, Costa pumpkin spice lattes and such, Coke/Pepsi/fizzy sweet drinks, muffins, crisps, sweets, ready meals, Percy flipping Pigs and all that old nonsense are all ultra processed and seem to be dietary staples in many cases.

Not only do these foods spike blood sugar but they affect your gut microbes in a bad way too, and that has downstream negative effects. Emulsifier used in so many foods has been shown to diminish good gut bacteria, artificial sweetener too. Ghastly stuff and omnipresent in ultra-processed food.

These horrible kinds of foods can also drive hunger and cravings, partly because they put you on a blood sugar roller coaster and partly because they are ultra-palatable with a combination of fat, sugar and salt that urges you to eat more and more of it. Whereas if you have some poached eggs and spinach on wholegrain ‘real bread’ toast it’s unlikely you’ll want another plateful for a while.

Ultra processed food sweet
Ultra-processed foods. (Photo by Leigh Patrick)

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.

Cover photo by Moises Ribeiro.

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