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What Are 'Ultra-Processed' Foods?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianApril 12, 2019

It drives me a nuts when I hear people doling out advice to avoid “processed foods” or “anything in a package”. Unless you live on a farm and spend all day in the kitchen, that’s pretty much impossible. Most foods are processed in some way, including healthy staples like frozen fish, canned vegetables, and whole grain flour. Processing makes food safe and convenient—and in some cases, even better tasting.  

A more accurate and helpful way to think of these foods is the degree of processing they’ve undergone. On one end of the spectrum: Minimally processed foods, which include things like dried beans, frozen meat, unsalted nuts, plain yogurt, and pasteurized milk. They closely resemble their natural state.

On the other end are ultra-processed foods. They’re items such as cookies, sugary breakfast cereal, chicken nuggets, soda, chips, and canned soup. This category has been getting a lot of buzz lately. And not the good kind.

According to some research, the more of these ultra-processed foods we eat, the less healthy we become. One study published in the British Medical Journal found a higher rate of cancer in people who ate more ultra-processed foods. And a recent study of French adults concluded there was a higher risk of early death associated with an ultra-processed diet. Researchers say nearly 60 percent of the total diet for U.S. adults comes from ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods tend to be higher in fat, salt, and sugar and lower in fiber than minimally processed foods. Researchers say those factors, combined with food additives, chemicals in food packaging, and processing methods like high-temperature heating, could be contributing to health risks.

What to do? I’ve heard calls to avoid ultra-processed foods completely, but I don’t think that’s realistic--and it seems like a recipe for obsession and frustration. Here’s what I recommend instead:

  • Read ingredient lists when shopping. My rule of thumb is the simpler the better. If there are options that don’t contain as many additives, choose those.
  • Cook more often. Some convenience foods are a necessity in a busy life, but even a simple meal made from minimally processed ingredients—like rice and beans or scrambled eggs—would be better for your health than a frozen dinner.
  • Cut yourself some slack. What you eat most of the time is what matters. Focus on unprocessed foods (like fresh fruits and veggies) and minimally processed foods most often and don’t sweat the occasional hot dog or cookie.
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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a “no-judgments” zone all about feeding families.

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