What are Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods?
Processed foods have always been thought bad for health and inferior to unprocessed foods. They may bring to mind a pre-packaged food full of harmful ingredients which is being used for the sake of convenience and taste and which might be a contributory factor for obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. But before jumping onto the conclusion, let’s check what the experts have to say about it.
Definition of Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state—that is, any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. Food that is processed may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.
Ultra-Processed foods are one step ahead of processed foods, they most likely have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, stabilizers, bulking, foaming, and gelling agents. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, hydrogenated fats, and hydrolyzed proteins.1
Examples of processed and ultra-processed foods
Processed foods: 2
- Freshly made bread, salted nuts, ham, bacon, tinned fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen, without added salt or sugar)
- Nut butters such as peanut, almond and cashew butters (without added sugar or oil)
- Nuts and seeds (unsalted and unsweetened)
- Frozen meat or fish (without added salt or preservatives)
- Canned tuna (in water)
- Low sodium or no salt added canned/jarred vegetables, beans and tomatoes
- Low sodium or no salt added broth with minimal additives
Ultra-Processed foods: 2
- sugary beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks, and fruit punch
- sweet or savory packaged snacks such as chips and cookies
- sweetened breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sweetened oat meals
- baking mixes such as stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes
- reconstituted meat products such as hot dogs and fish sticks
- frozen meals such as pizza and TV dinners
- powdered and packaged instant soups
- candies and other confectionery
- packaged breads and buns
- energy and protein bars and shakes
- meal replacement shakes and powders meant for weight loss
- boxed pasta products
- ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and cocoa mixes
- margarine and other ultra-processed spreads such as sweetened cream cheese
Grades of Processed Foods
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics describes a ranking of processed foods from minimally to heavily processed:
- Minimally processed: e.g., bagged spinach, fresh blueberries, roasted nuts, whole-grain bread, fortified milk
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness: e.g., canned tomatoes, canned tuna, frozen vegetables
- Foods with ingredients (salt, sugar, oils, spices, preservatives) added for flavor and texture: e.g., salad dressing, sweetened yogurt, cake mixes
- Ready-to-eat foods: e.g., crackers, granola, deli meats, which are more heavily processed
- Heavily processed: e.g., frozen pizza, frozen dinners, fast foods
Drawbacks of Food Processing
Many nutrients can be destroyed during the processing of foods for example peeling outer layers of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may remove some phytochemicals and fibre, heating or drying foods can destroy certain vitamins and minerals.
Some food that contains additives that may be marketed as “healthy” to look out for include some granola bars, certain protein drinks and bars, sports drinks, and breakfast cereals. 3
Are processed foods always bad?
Though it seems that processed foods are always bad for health, this might not be true in certain circumstances. Food fortified with specific nutrients can prevent deficiencies and related diseases, eg infant cereals fortified with iron and B vitamins prevent anemia, milk fortified with vitamin D prevent rickets, wheat flour fortified with folic acid prevent birth defects, and iodine added to salt prevent goiter.4
Frozen vegetable and fruit bags are also considered processed food but it doesn’t mean we should avoid eating it, they are generally frozen at the peak of their freshness. Be sure to take a look at the ingredients list while buying processed food. The shorter the list – the better it is, it means they are less processed.
In addition, processed foods can be a time-savers when preparing meals. Some nutrients like protein are naturally retained throughout processing while fruits and vegetables that are quickly frozen after harvesting can retain the majority of vitamin C.
Processing by certain methods like pasteurization, cooking, and drying can destroy or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Additives such as emulsifiers preserve the texture of foods, such as preventing peanut butter from separating into solid and liquid parts. Other functions of processing include delaying the spoilage of food; preserving desirable sensory qualities of food (flavor, texture, aroma, appearance); and increasing convenience in preparing a complete meal.5
Why are they bad for your health?
A high intake of ultra-processed foods is associated with several health issues, such as:6
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- An increase in death
- Type 2 diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Coronary heart disease
Deli meats and other far-from-nature forms of animal protein like hot dogs are extraordinarily processed and can have severe harmful effects. In fact, the World Health Organization has acknowledged these forms of meat as a major contributor to colorectal cancer and classifies them as carcinogenic to humans.7
Several researchers showed that people who follow diets rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods live longer and have a lower risk of developing chronic health conditions than people who consume diets high in ultra-processed foods. For example, the Mediterranean dietary pattern which prioritizes whole foods associated with a longer life expectancy and a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, and obesity.8,9 On the other hand, diets high in ultra-processed foods such as fast food, sweets, and soda have been consistently linked to increased disease risk and a shorter life expectancy. 10,11
Good nutrition is more than just counting calories, food affects our genes, modifies metabolism, alters brain responses and more. 12
It’s perfectly normal to enjoy your favorite snack food or ice cream once in a while, as long as you consume these foods in moderation and mostly eat minimally processed foods.
If you are deciding to include an ultra-processed food into your diet, its best to consider the nutritional value vs calories content in the food. An ultra-processed food that has unevenly high ratio of calories to nutrients may be considered unhealthy and can lead to high risk of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases.
- McManus D. Katherine. “What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health”. 9Jan2020.
- Monteiro, Carlos A et al. “Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them.” Public health nutrition vol. 22,5 (2019): 936-941.
- Champion Chayil. “What you need to know about processed foods – and why it is so hard to quit them”. 22Dec2021.
- Gibney MJ. Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues. Curr Dev Nutr. 2018 Sep 14;3(2):nzy077.
- Martínez Steele, Euridice et al. “The share of ultra-processed foods and the overall nutritional quality of diets in the US: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” Population health metrics vol. 15,1 6. 14 Feb. 2017.
- Campbell Amy. Processed vs Ultra – Processed foods: What’s the difference? 08Nov2022.
- Li William. Processed vs Ultra-Processed foods: Which are okay?
- Minelli, Pierluca, and Maria Rosa Montinari. “The Mediterranean Diet And Cardioprotection: Historical Overview And Current Research.” Journal of multidisciplinary healthcare vol. 12 805-815. 27 Sep. 2019.
- Esposito K, Maiorino MI, Bellastella G, Panagiotakos DB, Giugliano D. Mediterranean diet for type 2 diabetes: cardiometabolic benefits. Endocrine. Vol. 56(1) 27-32. Apr 2017.
- Elizabeth, Leonie et al. “Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review.” Nutrients vol. 12,7 1955. 30 Jun. 2020.
- Zhong, Guo-Chao et al. “Association of ultra-processed food consumption with cardiovascular mortality in the US population: long-term results from a large prospective multicenter study.” The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity vol. 18,1 21. 3 Feb. 2021.
- American Heart Association News. Processed vs ultra-processed foods and why it matters to your health. 29Jan2020.