Heatlhy eating is a diet that combines nutrient-dense foods with plenty of fluids and a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, dairy products and whole grains. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit, choose low fat protein sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, poultry without skin, fish, shellfish and lean meats, drink low fat milk and yogurt, and eat low fat cheeses and kefir.
You’ve heard of processed foods before, but what about ultra-processed foods? This descriptor is gaining more attention as research around this food category unfolds. What are ultra-foods, anyway—and what’s considered a processed food in the first place? Here’s a primer on what these nutrition terms mean, the health implications associated with processed and ultra-processed food (and drinks), and smart ways to navigate your way around these different options.
First, what are unprocessed foods (a.k.a. whole foods)?
Before we get into processed and ultra-processed foods, let’s brush up on what unprocessed foods are. Unprocessed food (and beverage) options are basically those foods that are still in their whole form, or most natural state, at the time of purchase—hence the name, they have not been (or have been very, very minimally) processed. Because of this, they typically have all their naturally occurring 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 actually likely thinking of ultra-processed foods. But there’s a distinct difference between these two categories.
“A processed food is any food that has undergone changes that alter the natural state of the food—this could be as simple as heating, freezing, dicing, and juicing,” explains Bianca Tamburello, RDN, registered dietitian at FRESH Communications. “Just because a food is processed doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
Processed foods tend to be more nutrient-dense with fewer ingredients, additives, and refinement.
Examples of processed foods:
Given these criteria, many technically processed foods are quite healthy options, including frozen fruits and veggies, cut fruit in the refrigerator section, fresh juices, instant brown rice, nut butter, tofu, whole wheat bread, extra virgin olive oil, plain yogurt, and dried fruits.
However, there’s a spectrum here, and some options may contain high amounts of certain nutrients we’re only meant to consume in moderation—for example, the sodium content found in canned vegetables. Because of this, it’s always super important to read a food’s nutrition label, even with the relatively healthy options.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Ultra-processed foods fall on the very far end of the spectrum when it comes to these three food categories, sometimes not even resembling food at all anymore. According to NOVA, an internationally recognized food classification system, ultra-processed foods are defined as: “snacks, drinks, ready meals, and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little, if any, intact food.”
Ultra-processed items are typically stripped of most of their nutrients and include a lot of additives (which, sadly, is part of what makes them so tasty)—from those that you would have trouble pronouncing to common culprits like sugar (in various forms), salt, saturated fat, and trans fats. Generally, if you wouldn’t find most of the product’s ingredients in your kitchen, that’s a tell-tale sign it’s an ultra-processed food or drink.
Examples of ultra-processed foods and drinks:
Some classic examples include chips, cheese curls, fruit snacks, packaged cookies, candy, some frozen meals, packaged cold cuts, fast food, soda, hot dogs, some alcoholic beverages, and refined wheat products like certain crackers, pastas, and white breads.
One Nutrition and Metabolism study found that ultra-processed foods are actually the primary source (around 58 percent) of energy (or calorie) intake in the U.S. and account for about 90 percent of the nation’s sugar consumption. The study also notes the added sugar content in ultra-processed foods was around eight times higher than it is in processed foods.
Let’s look at an example of the trajectory a food may move through with these processing phases. Whole strawberries would be the unprocessed food, while freeze dried strawberries would illustrate a processed option. Then, an ultra-processed example might be strawberry-flavored sour gummy ropes.
The Health Implications of Consuming Ultra-Processed Foods
But what impacts do ultra-processed foods have on our health—are they really so terrible for us? “Most ultra-processed foods are high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat—nutrients that we want to limit,” Tamburello says. “Diets high in these nutrients are associated with negative 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 typically refer to as “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 top—and only—source of trans fats in the diet. Trans fats are human-made fats that negatively impact heart health with a one-two punch: Not only do they increase bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL), but they also decrease our good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL). If consumed frequently over time, trans fats can contribute to the conditions needed for atherosclerosis (or plaque build-up in the arteries) and heart disease.
Plus, a mounting body of evidence is building to help elucidate the overarching health implications of consuming ultra-processed foods. One review published in Nutrients examined over 40 studies assessing these impacts and found ultra-processed foods to be associated with increased risk for metabolic disorders, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome in adults. It 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 OK to eat ultra-processed foods sometimes? Here’s how to find a healthy balance in everyday life.
Equipped with all of this information, what kinds of decisions should you make surrounding processed and ultra-processed foods in your day-to-day life? Given that foods processed to some degree are so prevalent in our country’s food supply and nearly impossible to avoid (and in many cases are perfectly healthy options) it’s crucial to have a game plan so you can make informed decisions for yourself 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. “Though, keep in mind that balance is key and eating an ultra-processed food once in a while is totally okay.”
Look at all nutrition labels.
When it comes to both processed and ultra-processed foods, be sure to read the nutrition and ingredient labels. This can help you become more aware of common ingredients and choose options that are lower in added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and mystery additives.
Moderation and balance are nutritional golden tickets.
As with everything else in the diet, including our healthiest foods, moderation is key.
Try to limit ultra-processed food options to just a couple times (or less, if you can) per week. We all love a favorite packaged dessert or snack food from time to time, and everything has a place to fit in an overall balanced diet, but it’s really a matter of how frequently you’re enjoying them.
Processed foods can definitely be enjoyed more frequently, as long as they’re healthful, nutrient-rich options as close to their natural state as possible and with minimal additives.
Now that you’ve got the low-down on processed and ultra-processed foods, you can cruise through the grocery store aisles with confidence, choosing the best foods (and favorite treats) for you and your loved ones, while avoiding the worst health impacts of excessive amounts of the ultra-processed stuff.