Are LeafSide meals a form of processed food?

The short answer is No and never, because every LeafSide meal is 100% whole foods plant-based (WFPB). As a company we’ve always been 100% WFPB since the beginning, and that will never change.

You can look at the ingredients of any of our meals, and you’ll find no processed franken-foods at all:

  • no unpronounceable chemicals,
  • no unidentified vague “flavors” or extracts,
  • no weird food dyes or colors with numbers,
  • no hydrolyzed or isolate foodstuffs,
  • no added/processed sugar,
  • no added/processed oils or fats.

LeafSide meals are made entirely of 20-30 real foods, almost all organic, from the best sources we can find.

The longer answer: There are at least two excellent definitions of whole/unprocessed foods vs processed foods that we use at LeafSide, and recommend to folks new to WFPB eating: 1) the common-sense definition of Dr. Michael Greger’s “traffic light” classifications, and 2) the more formalized NOVA classification system, by public health and food scientists.

First, Dr. Greger’s guidance is simple and easy to remember: a food gets the “green-light” when “nothing bad is added, and nothing good is removed.”  So practically everything in the produce section of a supermarket is “green-light” — a whole, unprocessed food grown and harvested directly from fields or trees. In fact, most governments around the world can agree on this working definition of “whole” food — because unlike processed foods, unprocessed whole fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, whole grains, etc have no legal requirement for extensive nutrition labeling. For an overview, please watch this short video from NutritionFacts.org

 

 

At LeafSide, we’re particularly careful to use the best green-light forms of foods available, that are still easily portable, which is why we use mostly freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, which best preserves nutrition.

The same green-light rule applies to everything else in a LeafSide meal. For example, a common plant food/ingredient, that can end up as either green-light or red-light, is wheat:

  • For a few LeafSide recipes we use the green-light forms of organic wheat, i.e. whole grain wheat like freekeh — a satisfyingly chewy and delicious form of cracked whole wheat, that has all the original parts of the wheat kernel/seed, like the bran (rich with fiber and minerals), the germ (that would grow into a new wheat plant, loaded with vitamins and protein), and the endosperm (packed with low-glycemic-index complex carbohydrates, and protein).
  • Whereas a red-light, highly processed form of wheat would be refined white flour, which is used ubiquitously in white breads, muffins, donuts, cakes, bagels, boxed cereals, pizza, cookies, pastries, and so on. In the making of white flour, wheat kernels’ bran and germ are discarded, while the remaining endosperm is processed, bleached, and made into a simple carbohydrate — losing all the whole wheat’s fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients (“enriched white flour” is effectively a joke, as it adds back in just a few synthetic vitamins).  Unfortunately white flour processed food products are much more frequently consumed in wealthier countries: besides easier storage, white flour’s processed simple carbohydrates are cheap to make and sell in large quantities, thus better for most food companies’ profits. Furthermore, when cheap baked goods are combined with added sugar and fat, they can easily trigger addictive short-term pleasure centers in the brain, assuring repeat buying regardless of health costs — but all that is another story.

A second more formalized and scholarly foods classification system is NOVA (not an acronym, just a name) developed by public health and nutrition researchers in 2009, and increasingly adopted by public health researchers and the United Nations, in particular to support the UN’s goals for its “Decade of Nutrition” from 2016 to 2025, focusing on reversing the rapid rise worldwide, of noncommunicable/lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.

In a nutshell, here is NOVA’s food classification system;

  1. Group 1, Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods, which includes whole foods plant-based (WFPB) foods. Drying, grinding, freezing, and home/restaurant cooking and preparation are included in this group. Thus all LeafSide meals, being made from 100% WFPB and requiring only steeping or blending, are in Group 1, the healthiest option.
  2. Group 2, Processed Culinary Ingredients: includes oils, butter, sugar, and salt. These foods are not meant to be consumed by themselves, and are derived from Group 1 foods, used in turn for preparation, seasoning, and cooking Group 1 foods.
  3. Group 3, Processed Foods are typically made by adding Group 2 foods to Group 1 foods in a package, e.g. fruits in syrup, canned vegetables, or breads and cheeses. Typically the ingredients list for a Group 3 food is still reasonably short, with recognizable Group 1 and 2 foods.
  4. Group 4, Ultra-processed Foods, are “formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods or additives,” with little or no intact whole foods. Their ingredients lists are long with many chemicals from industrial-scale processes (and definitely not found in home kitchens), combined in ways without domestic equivalents, “covering up” low-cost ingredients and poor taste with sugar, oil/fats, and salt in large amounts, to make the food “hyper-palatable” i.e. addictive.

NOVA’s unique and useful contribution was identifying “ultra-processed” foods as such, and as one of the top causes of the global chronic illness crisis (which includes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc). A 2019 study using NOVA in the USA, by researchers at John Hopkins School of Public Health, found that those in the top 25% eating the most Group 4 ultra-processed foods, had a 31% higher risk of dying from all causes. So please do stick to green-light, Group 1 foods as far as possible.

For those of us who enjoy being nutrition nerds, NOVA researchers remarked:

The term “ultra-processed” was coined to refer to industrial formulations manufactured from substances derived from foods or synthesized from other organic sources. They typically contain little or no whole foods, are ready-to-consume or heat up, and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, protein, various micronutrients and other bioactive compounds. Examples include: sweet, fatty or salty packaged snack products, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolates, confectionery, French fries, burgers and hot dogs, and poultry and fish nuggets.

NOVA’s classification system is useful and important because ultra and highly processed foods pose growing, systemic, and global health risks:

  1. Older food classifications aren’t helpful anymore, e.g. an advisory to eat “cereals and cereal products” could easily be misunderstood by many to falsely equate whole grains (e.g. oat groats, quinoa — whole grains full of healthy micro- and phytonutrients), with sugary processed cereals (also laden with artificial colors and flavors).
  2. Scientific evidence is rapidly accumulating that the degree of food processing is directly related to a food’s health risks, e.g. industrial hydrogenation processes and trans-fats.
  3. As supermarkets displace traditional fresh food markets worldwide, ultra-processed foods take up most of a supermarket’s shelf space, with billions of dollars spent marketing them, especially to children.
  4. Highly/ultra-processed foods are produced and promoted by multinational food companies, aka “Big Food” with resources (billions of dollars of advertising, pseudo-studies) and other means (lobbying) to undermine national/public health policies of many countries.
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