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Home/Blog/What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? Learn How to Identify and Avoid

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? Learn How to Identify and Avoid

By Joe Boland

January 11, 2024

Ultra processed foods

In the U.S., far too many people consume processed foods that are pumped full of unhealthy ingredients and linked to a slew of health issues. Even worse are so-called ultra-processed foods, which some reports indicate account for up to 73 percent of the U.S. food supply.

The bad news is that consumption of ultra-processed foods continues to rise — with research revealing that ultra-processed food consumption has continuously risen the past two decades —  but it doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways to satisfy your hunger and food cravings without going the processed route, and it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it may seem to eat fewer ultra-processed foods in 2024.

As always, you should consult your healthcare professional prior to beginning any new dietary or lifestyle regimen. 

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) refer to food and drink products that have undergone extensive processing and often contain a long list of ingredients, including additives, preservatives, flavorings, emulsifiers and other substances. These foods are typically manufactured and formulated to be convenient, ready-to-eat and have a longer shelf life. 

The term "ultra-processed" is used to distinguish these foods from minimally processed or whole foods.

Some characteristics of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Ingredients: Ultra-processed foods often contain a high number of ingredients, including additives and preservatives. These ingredients may not be commonly used in home cooking.

  • Industrial Processes: The production of ultra-processed foods involves industrial techniques and processes, such as extrusion, molding and pre-processing of ingredients.

  • Low in Nutrients: Despite often being energy-dense, ultra-processed foods may lack essential nutrients compared to whole foods. They may contain high amounts of added sugars, unhealthy fats and salt.

  • Convenience: These foods are designed for quick consumption and are often ready-to-eat or require minimal preparation.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include many fast food items, sugary drinks, packaged snacks, instant noodles and various ready-to-eat meals.

UPFs vs. Processed Foods

The classification of foods into different categories like ultra-processed and processed can sometimes lead to confusion. Let's clarify the distinction between ultra-processed foods and processed foods:

Processed Foods:

  • These foods undergo some form of processing to make them suitable for consumption or to extend shelf life.

  • Processing can include washing, cutting, freezing, pasteurizing and other methods that do not substantially alter the original form of the food.

  • Examples of processed foods include minimally processed items like bagged salad, canned vegetables and cheese.

Ultra-Processed Foods:

  • Ultra-processed foods go through extensive industrial processing, often involving the use of industrial ingredients and additives.

  • They are typically ready-to-eat or easy to heat and consume quickly.

  • Ultra-processed foods may contain little to no whole foods and often have added sugars, unhealthy fats and high levels of salt.

  • Examples include fast food, sugary drinks, pre-packaged snacks and ready-to-eat meals with long ingredient lists.

Comparison:

  • Degree of Processing: Processed foods undergo some level of processing, but the extent is much greater in ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods usually involve multiple industrial processes and the use of numerous additives.

  • Ingredients: Processed foods may have a moderate number of ingredients, some of which are natural. In contrast, ultra-processed foods often contain a long list of artificial additives, preservatives and flavorings.

  • Nutritional Content: Some processed foods can still retain significant nutritional value, especially if they are minimally processed and include whole food ingredients. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are often energy-dense but nutrient-poor, containing excessive amounts of added sugars, unhealthy fats and salt.

  • Health Impact: While occasional consumption of processed foods may not necessarily be harmful, a diet high in ultra-processed foods has been linked to various negative health impacts.

While both processed and ultra-processed foods involve some level of modification from their original state, the key difference lies in the extent of processing and the types of ingredients used. It's generally advisable to focus on a diet rich in minimally processed or whole foods and limit the intake of ultra-processed foods for better health outcomes.

Health Impacts of Ultra-Processed Foods

Consuming a diet high in ultra-processed foods has been associated with several negative health impacts. While not all processed foods are inherently unhealthy, the ultra-processed category is of particular concern due to the following potential areas of negative health impacts for one’s:

  • Weight

  • Digestive system and metabolism

  • Heart 

  • Inflammation levels

  • Overall health

  • Nutrient intake

  • Eating patterns

It's important to note that these health impacts are often associated with a pattern of long-term, high consumption of ultra-processed foods. Including a variety of whole, minimally processed foods in the diet is generally recommended for better overall health and well-being. 

Additionally, individual responses to specific foods can vary, and factors such as genetics, lifestyle and overall dietary patterns play a role in determining health outcomes.

How to Identify Ultra-Processed Foods

Identifying ultra-processed foods involves examining the ingredient list and considering the overall level of processing. Here are some tips on what to look for when determining if a food item is ultra-processed:

1. Long Ingredient List

Ultra-processed foods often have a lengthy list of ingredients, including additives, preservatives and artificial flavorings. The more ingredients listed, especially if they are unfamiliar or sound like chemicals, the more likely it is that the food is highly processed.

2. Artificial Additives

Look for common additives and preservatives, such as:

  • Emulsifiers

  • Stabilizers and thickeners

  • Artificial sweeteners

  • Artificial colorings

  • Flavor enhancers

3. High Levels of Added Sugars

Check the nutrition label for added sugars. Be aware of various names for added sugars, such as sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

4. Unhealthy Fats

Look out for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, as they indicate the presence of trans fats. Also, be cautious if the product contains large amounts of saturated fats.

5. Refined Grains

Ultra-processed foods may contain refined grains, which have been stripped of their bran and germ, removing important nutrients and fiber. Look for ingredients like enriched flour.

6. Unfamiliar or Highly Processed Ingredients

If the ingredient list contains items that you wouldn't typically use in home cooking or that sound highly processed, it's a sign that the food is likely ultra-processed.

7. Lack of Whole Foods

Ultra-processed foods often lack whole, minimally processed ingredients. If the majority of the ingredients are not recognizable as real foods, it's a clue that the product is highly processed.

8. Packaging and Branding

Ultra-processed foods are often found in brightly colored packaging with claims or marketing messages emphasizing convenience and long shelf life. Pay attention to marketing strategies that promote the product's convenience and appeal rather than its nutritional value.

How to Reduce UPFs in Your Daily Diet

Reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods and adopting a more whole-food-based diet can have positive impacts on your health. Here are some practical healthy eating tips to help you minimize ultra-processed foods in your daily diet:

1. Plan and Prepare Meals

Plan your meals ahead of time to avoid relying on convenient, but often less nutritious, ultra-processed options. Prepare meals at home using fresh, whole ingredients. Cooking at home gives you control over the ingredients and cooking methods.

2. Read Labels

Check ingredient lists and nutrition labels before purchasing food items. Choose products with shorter ingredient lists that contain recognizable, whole foods.

3. Choose Whole, Unprocessed Foods

Prioritize whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and nuts. These foods provide essential nutrients and are generally lower in added sugars, unhealthy fats and sodium.

4. Shop the Perimeter

In grocery stores, the perimeter often contains fresh produce, meats and dairy, while the center aisles contain more processed and packaged foods. Focus on the perimeter for healthier options.

5. Limit Sugary Drinks

Choose water, herbal tea or other low-calorie, low-sugar beverages instead of sugary sodas, energy drinks and sweetened fruit juices.

6. Snack Smart

Opt for whole food snacks like fresh fruit, vegetables with hummus or nuts instead of pre-packaged snacks that are often high in sugars, unhealthy fats and additives.

7. Limit Fast Food and Takeout

Reduce the frequency of eating out at fast-food restaurants and opting for takeout. When eating out, choose restaurants that offer healthier, less processed options.

8. Minimize Processed Meats

Cut down on the consumption of processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and deli meats, which often contain additives and preservatives. Choose fresh, lean meats instead.

9. Be Mindful of Convenience Foods

While convenient, many pre-packaged convenience foods are ultra-processed. Consider healthier alternatives like pre-cut vegetables or whole-grain crackers instead.

10. Gradual Changes

If you're used to a diet high in ultra-processed foods, consider making gradual changes. Start by incorporating more whole foods into your diet and gradually reducing reliance on processed options with some healthy food swaps.

11. Educate Yourself

Learn about nutrition and food labels to make informed choices. Understanding the impact of ultra-processed foods on your health can motivate you to make better food choices.

12. Cook in Batches

Cook larger portions, and freeze leftovers. This can save time and make it more convenient to choose homemade, whole-food options over processed alternatives.

13. Detox the Body to Reset

When you make the decision to eat fewer ultra-processed foods, it can help to detox the body and work with your body’s built-in detoxification system to flush out toxins and reset your gut.

Here are some ways to detox your body:

Remember, making sustainable changes to your diet is about creating habits that work for you. Small, consistent steps toward a more whole-food-based diet can lead to long-term improvements in your overall health.

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