Do you know what’s in your food? You might be surprised to learn that many foods are ultra-processed - which may hurt your health. Discover how to spot them and why you should steer clear for a healthier body.
You know the feeling: you are running late and you need something to eat. You reach for the nearest snack or meal that looks like food. But do not be fooled - it might be ultra-processed food in disguise. And that is bad news for your health. Ultra-processed foods are full of artificial ingredients that do more harm than good to your body.
But how can you tell what is ultra-processed and what is not? Read on to learn how to spot the difference between ultra-processed, processed, and minimally processed foods - and why you should ditch the ultra-processed ones for good.
Unprocessed, processed, ultra-processed: what’s the difference?
Not all foods are created equal when it comes to being processed. Some foods undergo little or no changes from their natural state, while others are transformed by adding or removing ingredients, altering their texture, flavor, or appearance.
Foods are generally categorized into four groups when it comes to level of processing:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Unprocessed foods are in their natural and unaltered state, with no added ingredients. They are fresh from nature. Minimally processed foods have been altered by industrial methods that do not add anything to the original food. These methods include removing parts, drying, cutting, separating, heating, cooling, packaging, or vacuuming. Healthy diets are built on all types of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meat, fish, eggs, milk, fresh fruit and vegetable juices, flours, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, plain yogurt, tea, coffee, and water.
- Processed culinary ingredients. Processed culinary ingredients are substances from natural foods that are pressed or ground. They are industrial products that help cook dishes and meals. They have few or no nutrients and are high in calories, but they are not eaten alone. They are combined with other foods to make meals that are lower in calories than most ready-to-eat products. They should be used sparingly and carefully to avoid excess intake. Examples are oils, butter, lard, sugar, honey, syrup, starches, and salt.
- Processed foods. Processed foods are foods that have salt, oil, sugar, or other substances added to natural foods. They are made by canning, smoking, curing, or fermenting. They are eaten with other foods or as snacks. They have more flavor and last longer than natural foods. Some processed foods have a lot of oil, sugar, or salt, which makes them unhealthy and high in calories. They should be eaten less and not often. Examples of processed food are canned vegetables and legumes in brine, salted or sugared nuts and seeds, salted, dried, cured, or smoked meats and fish, canned fish, fruit in syrup, and freshly made unpackaged breads and cheeses.
- Ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are products made by industrial processes using ingredients that are not used in cooking. They are made by breaking down whole foods into starches, oils, and proteins, and then modifying them chemically or physically. They also use additives like artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and preservatives to enhance their appearance, taste, and shelf life. Common ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, salty packaged snacks, candies, breads and buns, cakes and cake mixes, margarines, sweetened cereals, fruit yogurts, energy drinks, ready-made meals, instant soups, and reconstituted meats like nuggets, sausages, burgers, and hot dogs.
Ultra-processed foods are taking over our diets
People find ultra-processed foods appealing - and tend to overindulge in them - for several reasons. First, these foods are often easy to prepare and eat, which makes them convenient for busy lifestyles. Second, they are usually tasty and satisfying, which can trigger cravings and make it hard to stop eating them. Third, they are heavily advertised and marketed, especially to young people, which can influence food choices and preferences.
The consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased significantly among US adults over the past two decades, according to a 2022 study. Researchers analyzed self-reported dietary data from 40,937 adults from 2001 to 2018. They found that the average intake of ultra-processed foods rose from 53.5% to 57.0% of total calories consumed, while the intake of minimally processed foods declined from 32.7% to 27.4%. The upward trend of ultra processed food consumption along with the declining consumption of nutritious, minimally processed foods is certainly worrying, given that these foods are considered major contributors to disease.
The dangers of ultra-processed eating
Not only are ultra-processed foods nutritionally poor, delivering fat, sugar, and salt, they also replace more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes that provide essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. That means when you are busy eating unhealthy options, that leaves little room on your plate and in your stomach for the nourishing ones - raising your chances of damaging your health.
So, what are the implications of ultra-processed food for your health?
Overweight or obesity
One 2020 narrative review aimed to find out by evaluating 43 studies that investigated how consuming ultra-processed foods affected the risk for obesity and overweight and cardiometabolic disease. Dietary data was collected through food-frequency questionnaires, interviews, food diaries, and grocery bill records, and health outcomes were self-reported on questionnaires or collected from national registries.
Most studies found that eating more ultra-processed foods led to weight gain or obesity. Specifically, one study investigated how ultra-processed food intake affected weight gain and waist circumference in 11,827 adults. The researchers used a questionnaire to measure how often and how much people ate different foods in the past year. They also classified the foods into three groups based on how much they were processed, and then calculated the percentage of calories that came from each group. After 3.8 years, the participants who consumed the most ultra-processed foods (31 to 74% of total daily calories) saw an average weight gain of 0.66 lb per year and a waist circumference gain of 0.7 cm per year. This group experienced a 27% greater risk of being overweight or obesity and 33% higher risk of waist circumference gains than those who consumed less than 17.8% of their daily calories on ultra-processed foods. Waist circumference is a measure of fat around your middle, which can pose serious health risks, as it can indicate the amount of visceral fat that surrounds your organs. Visceral fat is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
The same review showed that people who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a higher chance of having metabolic syndrome than those who ate the least. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health issues, like large waist size, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol, that increase your chances of getting heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other serious conditions. It is also known as insulin resistance syndrome. One particular study saw that of 6,385 US adults, those who got more than 71% of their calories from ultra-processed foods had a 28% higher chance of having metabolic syndrome than those who got less than 40% of their calories from ultra-processed foods. Also, for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, the chance of having metabolic syndrome increased by 4%. Another study showed that among 14,790 Spanish adults who were followed for 9.1 years, the people who ate 5 servings of ultra-processed food a day had a 21% higher risk of developing high blood pressure than those who only ate 2.1 servings a day. This may not be surprising, given that more than 70% of the sodium we consume is from salt added to packaged ultra-processed and restaurant foods, according to the American Heart Association. Excess sodium draws water into the body’s blood vessels, which increases the amount and pressure of blood inside them. This forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body and can lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and kidney failure.
Another 2018 study included 104,980 French adult participants who filled out questionnaires on their diet and lifestyle choices at baseline. Dietary records were updated every six months for two years, and associations between ultra-processed food intake and cases of overall, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer were noted over the next five years. The study found that eating more ultra-processed foods was linked to higher risks of overall cancer. Specifically, for every 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet, the risk of overall cancer increased by 12% and the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer increased by 11%. Conversely, eating more minimally or unprocessed foods was linked to lower risks of overall and breast cancers. For each 10% increase in the proportion of unprocessed foods in the diet, overall cancer risk lowered by 9% and breast cancer risk reduced by 58%.
Type 2 diabetes
One study examined how different types and amounts of ultra-processed foods affect the chances of getting type 2 diabetes in 198,636 healthy American adults. Data was collected about their diets and medical information every two to four years between 1984 and 2014 using a food frequency questionnaire. The study found that overall, the people who consumed 10 servings a day of ultra-processed foods had a 56% higher risk of developing diabetes than those who consumed 3.3 servings a day, and that the risk increased by 5% for every additional serving per day consumed. The study also found that different food subgroups had different associations with diabetes risk. For example, diabetes risk was most elevated when people consumed ultra-processed sauces, spreads and condiments (23%), artificially- and sugar-sweetened beverages (21%) animal-based products (18%), and ready-to-eat meals (10%). Conversely, ultra-processed cereals (-14%), dark and whole-grain breads (-12%), packaged sweet snacks and desserts (-10%), and yogurt (-6%) were associated with lower risk.
To evaluate how eating ultra-processed food affects the risk of death and heart disease, researchers followed 18,779 American adults who participated in a national health survey from 1988 to 1994. The survey collected information on their food and beverage intake using a questionnaire. The study also tracked their deaths and causes of death until 2011. The researchers found that over 19 years, 2,451 people died from any cause and 648 people died from heart disease. The results showed that the people who ate ultra-processed food most often, between 5.2 and 29.8 times a day (2,573 calories), had a 31% higher risk of death than people who ate it less than 2.6 times a day (1,970 calories).
How to spot ultra-processed foods
It can be tricky to know whether a food is ultra-processed. Fortunately, there are easy ways to spot these unhealthy foods so that you can make better choices for your health.
It all begins with the food label. By law, pre-packaged food and drink products must include labels that inform you of their ingredients and nutrients. You can easily tell if a food is ultra-processed by checking its ingredients list. An obvious clue? Look for any ingredients that you do not recognize or use in your kitchen.
Ultra-processed foods typically contain two types of added ingredients: food substances and cosmetic additives. Food substances are sources of protein, carbohydrate, or fat that are not natural foods or cooking ingredients. You will find them in the beginning or middle of the ingredient list, and include hydrolysed proteins, soy protein isolate, gluten, casein, whey protein, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, and hydrogenated oil.
Cosmetic additives are flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and thickeners that make the food look or taste better. They are usually seen at the end of the ingredient list, and are either named by their class, like flavorings or natural flavors or artificial flavors, or they have their name and class together, like mono-sodium glutamate (flavor enhancer), caramel color, or soy lecithin as emulsifier. You might also recognize sweeteners like aspartame or stevia.
Let’s take two real world examples. First, bread that is made with only four simple ingredients (wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast) is processed because they have been changed from their natural state. But if the bread also has other ingredients added to them, such as emulsifiers or colors, they become ultra-processed foods, because they have been altered even more and contain artificial substances.
Similarly, oatmeal that is just cut from whole oats, or cereal that is just made from wheat or corn, are minimally processed foods, because they have not been changed much from their original form. But if these foods also have sugar added to them, they are processed foods, because they have more calories than before. And if they also have flavors or colors added to them, they are ultra-processed foods, because they have more chemicals and less natural ingredients than before.
When processed foods are beneficial
With so much overwhelming evidence that ultra-processed food is harmful, it may be easy to assume that processed foods are not healthy as well. But this is not alway the case. Processed foods are more nutrient-dense than ultra-processed foods, and in several cases, some processed foods can even make it easier for you to get nutrition you may otherwise not be getting. For example, calcium and vitamin D are often added to milk and juices, and many breakfast cereals deliver iron and fiber. Canned fruit in its own juice is a nutritious alternative to fresh fruit, and minimally processed foods like pre-cut vegetables and bagged spinach are quality options that save time. Whole wheat bread, canned fish, frozen and canned beans, extra-virgin olive oil, rolled oats, and tofu are also processed foods that deliver essential nutrients for good health.
Ways to cut down on ultra-processed foods
It is possible to reduce how much ultra-processed foods you are consuming while choosing healthier processed foods.
- Check the food labels. Avoid processed foods with too much sodium, sugar, and fat. Learn how to read the Nutrition Facts label, ingredients list, and other package claims.
- Eat frozen and canned produce. These are cheap and nutritious alternatives to fresh produce. Choose varieties without sauces and syrups. Compare the labels and pick items with less sodium and sugar.
- Look for the Heart-Check mark. This icon on the package means the food meets the American Heart Association’s nutrition standards.
- Order smart when eating out. Pick restaurants where food is made to order or there are healthier menu options. Get sauces, dressings, and condiments on the side so you can control how much is added.
- Eat more minimally processed foods. This means choosing foods that are close to their natural state and have undergone little or no changes during processing. These foods are usually rich in nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that are beneficial for health.
- Cook more meals at home. Cooking at home lets you decide exactly what is added. You can find many recipes and cooking tips online.
- Make small swaps. Make your own vinaigrette instead of buying bottled dressing. Add fruit to plain oatmeal, cereal, and yogurt instead of buying the sweetened kind.
- Snack better. Try crunchy unsalted nuts and seeds, cut-up veggies, fruits, and homemade popcorn.
The bottom line
Eating too many ultra-processed foods leads to a poor diet that is high in fat, sugar, and calories and low in essential nutrients. Research links ultra-processed food consumption with weight gain, higher blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and mortality. Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods as much as possible and only have them occasionally. Identify these foods by looking at the ingredient list to see if there are many unfamiliar or artificial substances. Aim for a healthier diet with less processed and more natural foods. Start by making small changes and gradually adopt a better eating pattern. These small changes can have a big impact on your health and wellbeing over time.