How ultra-processed foods differ from other processed foods

FROZEN PIZZAPREPACKED meals, fast foodand canned soup can enter your diet from time to time. These foods are tasty and convenient. But they’re also ultra-processed, and eating too many of them isn’t good for your health.

There are several definitions for ultra-processed food, she says Gina Granich, RDan instructor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. Simply put, an ultra-processed food is a food article, typically packaged, which presents numerous artifacts ingredients that add to it. Think salt, sugar, fat, enzymes and more.

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Three-quarters of Americans say they consider whether foods are processed and more than 60% try to avoid them, according to the International Food Information Councils 2023 survey on nutrition and health.

But not all processed foods are created equal. Most foods are processed to some extent to make them safe to eat.

For example, the United States Department of Agriculture count foods that have been canned, frozen, chopped, pasteurized, or dehydrated as processed. Minimally processed foods, such as frozen vegetablesCanned beans or pre-cut fruit can be healthy additions to your diet, says Granich.

But if you notice that a food label has a long list of ingredients you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce, it’s most likely an ultra-processed food. And dietitians say it’s best to limit them.

The closer a food is to its natural state, the better, explains Granich. Ultra-processed foods are not much like original food item due to all the additives. Some of the added ingredients aren’t typically things you would eat but are added to modify the taste or texture.

Here’s what you should know about ultra-processed foods, how they affect your health, and how many of these foods you should incorporate into your diet.

What exactly are ultra-processed foods?

Foods that have gone through several stages of processing and include many additives, preservatives and artificial components are considered ultra-processed, she explains Leah Silberman, R.Da registered dietician with Manhattan Medical Offices.

Frozen or ready-to-eat meals, French fries, cookies, hot dogs, sodas, sugary cereals, hamburgers and fast food chips are all examples of ultra-processed foods.

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You might think of ultra-processed foods as highly engineered products where natural ingredients have been replaced with synthetic ones. They are designed to be addictive, easy to use and long lasting,” says Silberman.

Ultra-processed foods are attractive because they are tasty, convenient, and usually inexpensive. But they don’t contribute to our health, Silberman says.

How to understand the different levels of food processing

Ultra-processed foods aren’t the only type of processed foods. To understand the different types, the NOVA food classification systemdeveloped by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, may help.

The classification is best used when looking at the zoomed-in view of your diet, she says Stephanie Nelson, R.Da registered dietician at MyFitnessPal. How much of your diet falls into each of these categories, overall? If most of your meals come from the ultra-processed category, it’s probably time to make some adjustments based on preference, access, and convenience.

The system classifies processed foods into four groups:

Group 1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods

This group includes fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, meat or eggs that are in their original state or have had inedible or unwanted parts, such as stems or fat, removed by the manufacturers of the product. To preserve food, make it suitable for storage and safe to eat, manufacturers may freeze, dry or pasteurize the product.

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Pre-cut fruits and vegetables that have just been peeled, washed and packaged fall into this category, says Silberman. Generally, these foods retain their original vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other health benefits.

Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients

This category includes oils, butter, sugar, salt and flour. They have been ground or pressed to make items that are used to prepare Group 1 foods. They are rarely eaten on their own.

Group 3: Processed foods

Cheese, canned vegetables and fish, canned fruit, and packaged bread are examples of processed foods. They are recognized as Group 1 modified versions and may contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt and preservatives.

Group 4: ultra-processed food and beverage products

These are formulations derived from foods, additives, preservatives and stabilizers. They are typically created by industrial processes. Ultra-processed foods include prepared or packaged pizza, meat, or pasta, as well as soft drinks, fast food, cookies, and packaged bread. They contain multiple, usually unrecognizable ingredients.

Are ultra-processed foods bad for your health?

In general, people eat too many ultra-processed foods, which make up nearly 60 percent of calories consumed in the United States, according to a study published in BMJ Open. These foods lack vital nutrients and are high in harmful ingredients, says Silberman.

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Too much sugar, bad fats, salt and artificial ingredients are often found in these foods, she says. Nutrient deficiency and other health problems including obesityheart disease and diabetes, can result from a diet composed primarily of these elements.

They can also be linked to cognitive decline. A recent studies found that people who ate more than 20 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods had a 28 percent faster decline in cognition and a 25 percent faster decline in executive functioning.

Ultra-processed foods, which often contain artificial flavors and sweeteners, are designed to be highly palatable, and Silberman says they can be addictive. Research shows that eating more ultra-processed foods leads to an overall increase in calorie intake and weight gain.

Research also showed that people who consume more ultra-processed foods may have higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease.

When ultra-processed foods make up the bulk of your diet, it’s probably a good indicator that the quality of your diet is low, says Nelson.

Should You Eat Ultra Processed Foods?

It’s best to limit ultra-processed foods and focus on consuming unprocessed or minimally processed items, says Granich. Check the ingredient list, and the smaller the list, the better.

Bonus points if there’s no ingredient list because you’re buying whole fruits and vegetables in their most natural form, she adds.

If unprocessed foods aren’t affordable for you, canned or frozen items are your best bet.

When the bulk of your diet consists of nutrient-dense unprocessed or minimally processed foods, with lots of fruits and vegetables, eating an ultra-processed food occasionally isn’t the end of the world, says Silberman. Just try to keep the portions small.

It’s usually not necessary to completely eliminate ultra-processed foods or scrutinize every food in your diet, says Nelson.

Overall, focus on eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains while meeting your protein, fiber, vitamin and mineral goals and staying below your goals for added sugar, sodium and saturated fat, she explains. Sprinkle on your favorite ultra-processed foods and make compromises when ultra-processed foods become the centerpiece of your meal.

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Erica Sweeney is a writer who focuses primarily on health, wellness and career. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.

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