What Are Ultra Processed Foods?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Is there any level of processing or ultra processing that is acceptable, and how do we know how processed a food really is?

Ultra processed food is under scrutiny for its link to certain health outcomes. Should we be concerned? If so, is there an “okay” amount to eat?

Here are two statements to consider:

  1. “Processed foods are bad for you.”
  2. “Processed foods can be a part of a healthy diet.”

Which sentence feels more comfortable?

#1 is more polarizing, yet it feels like a safer comment, one I hear a lot.
#2 is reasonable, objectively, but perhaps it doesn’t sit quite right, and I don’t see or hear it very often (if at all).

I share this example not to say one is right and the other is wrong, but to point out how comfortable we tend to be, making judgments about processed foods as a category. And how uncomfortable we are thinking about processed foods as part of our daily diets.

Part of this may be due to the fact that the definition of processed foods is murky. The term is used to describe a broad range of foods, including those (which may surprise you!) that many of us eat every day and think of as healthy staples in our diet. It isn’t always clear which processed foods have some redeeming qualities, and which ones are associated with negative health effects.

So how are processed foods defined, and what are we really talking about when we refer to them?

The four categories of processed foods – defined

  • Minimally processed doesn’t have added ingredients and largely remain whole. Examples include wheat, oats, pasta and grits, as well as canned tuna and pasteurized milk.
  • Processed culinary foods include foods that need to be pressed, refined, or extracted, such as vegetables oils, honey, and salt.
  • Processed foods with added ingredients include freshly made cheeses or breads, cured meats or fish, legumes in brine, and fruit packed in syrups for example.
  • Ultra processed are industrial formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch, protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives. They are typically energy dense and high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Products include the obvious, such as sweetened soda or energy drinks, packaged snacks, candies, baking mixes, cereal, pre-prepared meats and cheeses, frozen meals, and instant soups. But maybe more surprising, this category also includes baby formula, jams, yogurt with added ingredients, margarine, and mass-produced bread. These are foods and products many of us use daily, but food labels do not explicitly state whether or not the product is ultra processed.

Nutrition research & ultra processed foods
National surveys indicate that about 60% of American diets are made up of ultra processed foods (keep in mind this is an estimate, and I’ve seen it listed as high as 80%).

Research shows that diets high in ultra processed foods are associated with higher BMI and risk of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and some cancers, as well as neurological changes.

While this is disturbing, be mindful this is specific to individuals in the highest quartile (or grouping) of ultra processed food intake – those diets consisting of mostly ultra processed foods and very little whole foods. And while we can’t deny this relationship, there is no definitive evidence that eating any amount of ultra processed foods directly causes illness. At least, not yet.

It’s nearly impossible to create an experiment large and broad enough on humans, while limiting enough variables.

But what about how ultra processed foods affect our brain?
There have been studies specifically focused on ultra processed foods and brain health. For example, some have found an association between people who eat ultra processed foods and depression. What’s unclear is whether people with depression gravitate towards eating more ultra processed foods. Or do ultra processed foods cause depression?

Some studies observed a cognitive decline (such as memory) in people with the highest quartile of ultra processed food intake compared with those eating the least. People who ate a wide variety of whole foods in addition to ultra processed foods did not have this association – which continues to beg the question, how much is OK?

What about weight?
There is a link between ultra processed food intake and weight. This makes sense causally as well, because these foods are simultaneously energy-dense without the benefit of keeping us full for long. They also tend to be high in sodium, which will make us bloat, adding water weight to the equation.

So, what is the direct link between ultra processed food and health?
There is a link, but it’s difficult to suss out exactly why ultra processed foods, or processed foods in general for that matter, impact our health.

We can conjecture that it’s the added ingredients, or the lack of whole foods in the diet. Or, it could be the combination of fat, sugar, and salt in these foods that make us want to eat more than we normally would. Or maybe there’s a food addiction, or at least behavioral factor.

Shouldn’t we just avoid all ultra processed foods, just in case?
A diet consisting mostly of ultra processed foods is lacking in nutrients we need and providing us with additives we don’t need. But, ultimately, some food processing is important to provide food to everyone and limit waste.

Everyday processed foods are staple sources of dietary fiber and added vitamins or minerals for many. This includes whole grain breads, dairy products, and even baby formulas which are a vital resource for working parents or those who simply cannot or don’t want to breastfeed (even when it’s a choice, it’s not shameful!).

Processing also provides shelf stable foods, which may be a more affordable or accessible way to feed a family. This can be especially helpful for the elderly population, many of whom rely on convenience foods to meet nutrition needs independently.

And these examples just scratch the surface.

Bottom line?

We don’t need to avoid all ultra processed foods to be healthy.

There’s certainly a link between eating mainly ultra processed foods and our health, but there are many factors at play here, including what we eat as well as who we are as individuals. And no one has clear insight into exactly how much ultra processed food is acceptable, especially because it will differ for each person.

So in the meantime…

DO add in the fresh stuff, the whole stuff, the minimally processed stuff. And if you are fortunate enough to make choices among products regardless of price, nutrition labels can be a helpful way to compare ingredients and nutrients between one versus another.

DON’T judge other people for their foods choices, as this does not determine someone’s ability to manage their self-care or provide for their families. We do not need to feel guilty or ashamed if we occasionally eat more ultra processed food than we had intended. One meal, one day, one week will not make or break our health.

As always we appreciate your readership and your thoughts. Please share your comments or questions about ultra processed food below!

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  1. Sandy Beach

    Would love to print out info on “Ultra processed foods” … but my printer shows it will print a 1/3 rd page single “column”… how do you suggest I correct that?

    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Sandy, I’m happy to send it to you in a word document directly to your email which may make printing easier.