You’ve heard of processed foods before, but what about ultra-processed foods? This descriptor is gaining more attention as research into this food category unfolds. What are ultrafoods, anyway, and what is considered a processed food in the first place? Here’s an introduction to what these nutritional terms mean, the health implications associated with processed and ultra-processed foods (and beverages), and clever ways to navigate these different options.
First, what are unprocessed (aka whole) foods?
Before we get into processed and ultra-processed foods, let’s brush up on what not processed foods are. Unprocessed food (and beverage) options are basically those foods that are still in their complete, or most natural state, at the time of purchase, hence the name, have not (or have been very, very minimally) ) processed. For this reason, they typically have all of their natural nutrients intact, including any fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, or plant compounds they may contain.
Examples of unprocessed foods:
Some examples of unprocessed foods would be whole fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and fish, unaltered/raw grains, legumes, and nuts.
What are processed foods?
When many of us think of processed foods, we’re probably thinking of ultra-processed foods. But there is a clear difference between these two categories.
A processed food is any food that has undergone changes that alter the food’s natural state—it could be as simple as heating, freezing, dicing and juicing, explains Bianca Tamburello, RDN, a registered dietitian at FRESH Communications. Just because a food is processed doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Processed foods tend to be higher in nutrients with fewer ingredients, additives, and refinement.
Examples of processed foods:
Given these criteria, many technically processed foods are fairly healthy options, including frozen fruits and vegetables, cut fruit in the refrigerator section, fresh juices, instant brown rice, nut butters, tofu, whole grain breads, extra virgin olive oil, plain yogurt, and dried fruit.
However, there’s a spectrum here, and some options may contain high amounts of certain nutrients that were meant to be consumed only in moderation, such as the sodium content found in canned vegetables. For this reason, it’s always extremely important to read the nutrition label on a food, even with relatively healthy options.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods are at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to these three food categories, sometimes they don’t even look like food anymore. According to NOVA, an internationally recognized food classification system, ultra-processed foods are defined as: snack foods, beverages, ready meals and many other products created primarily or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little or no, untouched food”.
Ultra-processed items are typically stripped of most of their nutrients and include many additives (which, sadly, is part of what makes them so tasty) from what you’d have a hard time pronouncing to common culprits like sugar ( in various forms), salt, saturated fat, and trans fat. In general, if you can’t find most of the ingredients in your kitchen, that’s a telltale sign that it’s an ultra-processed food or drink.
Examples of ultra-processed foods and beverages:
Some classic examples include potato chips, cheese curls, fruit snacks, packaged cookies, candy, some frozen meals, packaged deli meats, fast food, soda, hot dogs, some alcoholic beverages, and refined grain products such as some crackers, pasta, and white bread .
A nutrition and metabolism The study found that ultra-processed foods are actually the primary source (about 58%) of energy (or calorie) intake in the United States and account for about 90% of the nation’s sugar consumption. The study also finds that the added sugar content of ultra-processed foods was about eight times higher than that of processed foods.
Let’s look at an example of the trajectory that a food can follow with these processing steps. Whole strawberries would be the unprocessed food, while freeze-dried strawberries would illustrate a processed option. So, an ultra-processed example might be strawberry-flavored sour gummy strings.
The health implications of consuming ultra-processed foods
But what impacts do ultra-processed foods have on our health, are they really that terrible for us? Most ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, sodium and saturated fat, nutrients we want to limit, says Tamburello. Diets high in these nutrients are associated with adverse health outcomes including heart disease, diabetes, chronic inflammation and [unhealthy] weight gain. Ultra-processed foods are also often low in nutrients known to promote better health, including fiber, vitamins and minerals.
In short, they’re what we’d normally call junk food, and they’re basically the polar opposite of nutrient-dense foods, which are high in healthy nutrients while relatively low in calories.
Ultra-processed foods are also effectively the first and only source of trans fat in the diet. Trans fats are man-made fats that negatively impact heart health with a one-two punch: They not only raise bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), but they also lower our good cholesterol ( high-density lipoprotein or HDL). When consumed frequently over time, trans fats can contribute to the conditions necessary for atherosclerosis (or plaque buildup in the arteries) and heart disease.
In addition, a growing body of evidence is accumulating to help clarify the general health implications of consuming ultra-processed foods. A review published in Nutrients looked at over 40 studies evaluating these impacts and found that ultra-processed foods are associated with an increased risk of metabolic disorders, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression and gut syndrome. irritable in adults. It has also linked these highly processed products to metabolic disorders and asthma in children. Another study in Neurology revealed their impact on brain health, linking these foods to increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older adults.
Is it okay to eat ultra-processed foods sometimes? Here’s how to find a healthy balance in everyday life.
Armed with all this information, what kind of decisions should you make about processed and ultra-processed foods in your daily life? Given that processed foods are to some extent so prevalent in our country’s food supply and nearly impossible to avoid (and in many cases, they’re perfectly healthy options), it’s crucial to have a game plan so you can make informed decisions about you and your family.
Prioritize whole and minimally processed foods.
Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods most of the time and try to limit ultra-processed foods,” Tamburello reiterates. “However, keep in mind that balance is key and eat an ultra-processed food occasionally that’s fine.
Look at all nutrition labels.
When it comes to processed and ultra-processed foods, be sure to read nutrition and ingredient labels. This can help you become more aware of common ingredients and choose options that are low in added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and mystery additives.
Moderation and balance are nutritional golden tickets.
As with everything else on the diet, including our healthiest foods, moderation is key.
Try to limit your ultra-processed food options to just a couple of times (or less, if you can) a week. We all love a favorite dessert or packaged snack from time to time, and it all has a place to be in an overall balanced diet, but it’s really a matter of how often you enjoy it.
Processed foods can definitely be enjoyed more frequently, as long as they’re healthy, nutrient-rich options that are as close to their natural state as possible, and with minimal additives.
Now that you have the latest information on processed and ultra-processed foods, you can confidently navigate the grocery store aisles, choosing the best foods (and favorite treats) for you and your loved ones, while avoiding quantity’s worst health impacts excessive amounts of ultra-processed stuff.