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What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

COPD Basics

March 18, 2024

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Photography by Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy United

Photography by Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy United

by Jessica Migala

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Kathy W. Warwick, RDN, CDCES

•••••

by Jessica Migala

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Kathy W. Warwick, RDN, CDCES

•••••

Not all processed foods are unhealthy, but here’s how to identify them.

Eating unprocessed, whole foods and avoiding or limiting ultra-processed foods is common nutrition advice. But what does it really mean?

If you’re trying to determine whether the foods in your grocery cart are “ultra-processed,” read on to learn what the phrase means, how these foods may affect your health, and how to spot them.

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What does ‘ultra-processed’ mean?

The term “ultra-processed” doesn’t have a strict definition. Often, researchers use what’s called the NOVA scale to pinpoint ultra-processed products.

Here’s how the NOVA scale works:

  • NOVA group 1: An unprocessed food is one that has not been changed from its original form. It’s an apple, pear, avocado, head of lettuce, or a bunch of carrots with their tops.
  • NOVA group 2: These cooking ingredients are minimally processed foods derived from group 1, like salt, olive oil, and maple syrup.
  • NOVA group 3: These processed foods include foods where ingredients are added — from sweeteners and oils to colors and preservatives — to make them more palatable. Examples include canned tomatoes, tinned tuna, flavored yogurt, or fresh bread.
  • NOVA group 4: Ultra-processed foods have been the most changed from their original form. They contain few foods from group 1 but are typically high in sugars, refined grains, fats, preservatives, and salt. This includes crackers, ice cream, deli meats, margarine, boxed cereals, breakfast bars, chicken and fish nuggets, hot dogs, fast food, frozen meals, chips, and soda. Ultra-processed foods may also be called “highly processed foods.”

However, the NOVA scale has its limitations. Classifying foods isn’t always that clear-cut, and the scale doesn’t consider the food’s nutritional value.

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Are ultra-processed foods unhealthy?

The answer to this question isn’t so simple.

A diet high in ultra-processed foods is linked with numerous health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, and an overall higher risk of death compared with a diet low in these foods.

Additives like excess sodium and sugar can make ultra-processed foods easier to overeat, leaving less room in your diet for nutrient-dense whole foods.

In a 2016 study with nearly 10,000 participants, ultra-processed foods accounted for about 60% of the participants’ total calories for the day. Researchers note that the sugar content in ultra-processed foods was nine times higher than processed foods.

Nearly 70% of excess sugar was from sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit drinks. Desserts, ice cream, and sweet snacks were another main source of excess sugar.

Ultra-processed foods are made of refined carbohydrates, which can affect insulin function (and thus blood sugar levels) and promote fat gain. Many also contain saturated fat, which can impair heart health. These foods often contain less fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them less nutritious to boot.

But ultra-processed foods are convenient. It’s easy to swing by a drive-thru for dinner instead of buying ingredients at the store to cook from scratch at home. Ultra-processed foods are designed to be really tasty, too, since they’re often high in salt and sugar.

However, there’s a bright spot. In a 2023 study, researchers point out it’s possible to eat a healthy, nutrient-packed diet that’s mostly made of ultra-processed foods. But the menu must be well planned to include fruits, veggies, dairy, and whole grains.

Researchers note that while yogurts with added sugar are considered ultra-processed, they supply an important source of bone-building calcium and blood pressure-regulating potassium. Whole grain packaged bread is also considered ultra-processed but can be a good source of fiber.

How can you tell if a food is ultra-processed?

In general, a long list of ingredients should raise a red flag that the food may be ultra-processed. You should also trust your instincts if something is ultra-processed: A 2023 study suggests that people’s perceptions about processed foods tend to be pretty spot on.

Keeping an eye out for specific ingredients can also clue you in to which foods are ultra-processed. For some guidance, here’s what to look for:

  • contains more than five ingredients
  • ingredients are typically not found in your own kitchen
  • artificial flavors
  • artificial colors
  • artificial preservatives
  • high in sodium
  • hydrogenated fats and oils
  • added sugar
  • emulsifiers, such as mono- or diglycerides, carrageenan, guar gum, and polysorbate
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How to consume fewer ultra-processed foods

You don’t have to overhaul your diet entirely. Small changes can get you closer to a whole foods-based diet:

Choose short-cuts on fresh foods

The convenience factor of ultra-processed foods can make cooking with fresh food feel intimidating (and like a huge time commitment). But a little bit of processing can make some foods much easier to prepare.

If your budget allows, buy chopped veggies, bagged baby spinach, and precooked whole grains like brown rice. No salt–added canned vegetables and frozen fruit are also helpful ways to fit these foods into your diet.

Swap out your beverages

Sugar-sweetened drinks like soda, sweet teas, juice cocktails, and coffee drinks can add sugar to your diet. Incorporate more water into your day by subbing out one sweetened drink for water, and slowly increase from there.

If water is too plain for your liking, adding fruit, like orange slices or strawberry chunks, or choosing sparkling water can make it a tastier sip.

Real labels

Purchasing fresh foods when you can is a great habit. But when you’re shopping for packaged products, look at the ingredients list. If it’s extremely long or confusing to figure out what ingredients are in the packaged item, it’s likely ultra-processed.

Do some light meal prep

Prepping food for the week doesn’t have to be burdensome, and it can be a great way to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.

For example, if you typically eat deli meat sandwiches, toss a few chicken breasts in a slow cooker or cook in the oven, and shred for a fresh sandwich filler you can keep handy in the fridge.

If you like oatmeal, you can meal-prep overnight oats by combining oats with your milk of choice in a mason jar. Let it sit overnight for a grab-and-go option in the morning.

DIY when you can

It’s unrealistic to suggest that anyone make all of their own food. (Though, if you have the time and motivation, go for it!) But think about what’s doable for you: Can you toss together nuts and dried fruit to make your own trail mix, or simmer tomatoes on the stove for a tomato sauce?

Or maybe you can whip together a quick vinaigrette, make your own whole grain pancakes instead of using a mix, or shred your own cheese.

Think about what works for you and your lifestyle so you can make the changes that stick in the long term, where it can make a big difference for your health.

Medically reviewed on March 18, 2024

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About the author

Jessica Migala

Jessica Migala is a health and wellness journalist based in the Chicago suburbs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from Syracuse University. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including EatingWell, Everyday Health, Real Simple, Oprah Daily, Levels Health, Health Central, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, SELF, and more. Follow her on LinkedIn.

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