You may have heard this health advice before: “Eat less processed foods” or “Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.” More specifically, in recent years, “ultra-processed foods” have gained some attention. Ultra-processed products have become common on supermarket shelves, but should you be avoiding them? In this article, we’ll explore what ultra-processed foods are, why they have raised alarm bells in the health community, and whether you should consider limiting their consumption.
Defining Ultra-Processed Foods
A lot of foods have undergone processing to some extent. Processed food is an umbrella term that describes food that has been altered in some way, usually to make preparation easier or to extend shelf life.
At the start of the spectrum, there are minimally processed food products that do not contain added sugar, salt, oil, and/or fat. Examples of minimally processed foods that tend to be a near-natural state include whole grains, unflavored nuts, raw meat, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, or plain milk.
In the middle of the spectrum, there are processed food products that contain added sugar, salt, oil, and/or fat. Processed foods usually contain a few ingredients in total. Examples include canned tuna, canned vegetables, or canned fruit in syrup.
At the far end of the spectrum, there are ultra-processed food products, which go beyond added sugar, salt, oil, and/or fat and also contain additives you would rarely find in a kitchen. This includes ingredients like hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, thickeners, artificial flavors, preservatives, and more. Ultra-processed foods usually contain lengthy ingredient lists. They are what most people think of as “junk food,” or food you shouldn’t eat all the time. Common examples include soft drinks, sweet packaged items like candy and desserts, savory packaged snacks like chips, fast food items, sausages, hot dogs, lunch meats, and microwave or instant meals.
Characteristics of Ultra-Processed Foods
Convenience and Long Shelf Life: Ultra-processed foods are designed with additives to be profitable by using low-cost ingredients, extending shelf life, and improving taste or appearance. They are often conveniently pre-packaged or require little preparation compared to their unprocessed or minimally processed counterparts. This makes them appealing to busy individuals.
Low Nutrient Density: Ultra-processed foods tend to be low in fiber and nutrients but higher-calorie due to added sugar and fat. This combination, along with higher amounts of added salt, makes them tasty but not so nutritious.
Potential Health Concerns
Some studies have linked eating higher amounts of ultra-processed foods with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, or certain cancers. When ultra-processed foods regularly replace healthier, nutrient-dense options in your diet, it may contribute to weight gain over time.
Should You Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods?
Many foods are processed to some degree. Processing foods, in general, can increase access to food, reduce costs, increase shelf life, increase convenience, and provide diversity in your diet. It would be difficult to avoid all processed foods. The key is to choose whole foods in their natural state or minimally processed foods most of the time and include ultra-processed foods in moderation. While it is unnecessary to eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet completely, aim to create more balance with these quick tips:
Read Labels: Choose products with a shorter ingredients list over lengthier ingredients lists when possible. If the expiration date is years into the future, that can be a sign that the food is leaning more on the side of ultra-processed.
Choose Whole Foods: Opt for whole foods or minimally processed foods when possible. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, plain milk and yogurt, plain nuts, and seeds.
Cook at Home: Reduce the frequency of eating fast food. Try to prepare meals at home more often. Use simple recipes that are time-saving but tasty.
Ultra-processed foods tend to be less nutrient-dense and may lead to health risks over time if consumed as the majority of your diet. Ultra-processed foods can be convenient or enjoyable but should be included in moderation and not make up the bulk of your daily intake. Prioritize whole foods or minimally processed foods most of the time to promote overall health and well-being.