What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? A Detailed Scientific Guide

Medically Reviewed
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Ultra-processed foods come in many forms.iStock (3); Canva

You can’t go on social media or read the news these days without seeing yet another warning about how ultra-processed foods are going to kill us.

This might sound hyperbolic, but there’s actually lots of research linking ultra-processed foods to numerous health problems and to premature death. The real trouble with these claims isn’t the lack of data behind them. It’s that it can be really hard to tell when these foods are on your plate.

“It has been known for a long time that consuming ultra-processed foods on a regular basis increases the risk of several chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity, and type 2 diabetes,” says Samantha Heller, RD, a senior clinical nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

“The poor nutrient quality of ultra-processed foods; high sodium, sugar, and saturated fat levels; and low fiber content are a recipe for poor health, physically, and cognitively,” Heller says.

Common Questions & Answers

Which foods are ultra-processed?
It can be hard to tell, but in general these foods are packaged and have lengthy ingredients lists and a long expiration date from your time of purchase. Watch for high amounts of sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat, as well as complicated ingredients like isolates, high-fructose corn syrup, and maltodextrin at the beginning of a food’s list of ingredients.
Are there any healthy ultra-processed foods?
Simply put, no. Ultra-processed foods contain few and sometimes no ingredients derived from whole foods — that is, natural foods from plants or animals.
What is the difference between processed and ultra-processed food?
Processed foods have been altered before they’re packaged but not as much as ultra-processed foods. Namely, processed foods still contain many of the vitamins and minerals their original forms did, whereas ultra-processed foods do not. Ultra-processed foods also typically contain more additives. For example, a packaged pasta dish with a long list of ingredients is ultra-processed, while plain, white pasta is processed.
How are ultra-processed foods made?
Ultra-processed foods have been dramatically altered from their original form, often by removing original components and adding new ones that are meant to make a food taste better or have a longer shelf life.
Why should I try to avoid ultra-processed foods?
If you’re trying to eat a healthy diet, avoiding or at least limiting ultra-processed foods is in your best interest. That’s because eating ultra-processed foods has been linked to several health issues, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to cancer.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

A few years back, scientists took a stab at defining ultra-processed foods based on the extent and purpose of food processing. They came up with a classification system called NOVA, widely used by nutrition and public health researchers and by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations?(PDF), which leads international anti-hunger efforts.

Under the NOVA system, there are four categories of food:

  • Unprocessed or natural: Foods that come directly from plants or animals and aren’t altered at all.
  • Minimally processed: natural foods that have been lightly processed to clean or remove some unwanted or inedible parts, but don’t include any added ingredients like oil, sugar, salt, or fat.
  • Processed: foods that are manufactured with the addition of oils, sugars, salts, and fats — but are derived from natural or minimally processed foods and recognizable as these foods.
  • Ultra-processed: industrial foods made almost entirely of substances extracted from foods like oils, fats, sugars, starches, and proteins, or synthesized in labs and factories with few, if any, ingredients that come directly from natural plant or animal foods.

Examples of Ultra-Processed Foods

It’s not hard to tell the difference between an unprocessed ear of corn and an ultra-processed bag of corn chips. But it can be challenging to determine how much processing goes into foods that come boxed, bagged, canned, or frozen.

“Food manufacturers are not required to label if food is ultra-processed, and anything boxed, canned or frozen does not automatically mean they are ultra-processed,” says Andrea Glenn, PhD, RD, a postdoctoral research fellow in nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

“There are lots of great options that fall into these categories — like canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, and boxed whole-grain pasta, for example,” Glenn says.

One quick way to sort this out at the grocery store is to think about how closely the products you’re buying resemble the whole foods they might originate from, according to?Harvard Medical School. Here are some quick examples Harvard offers to distinguish between processed and ultra-processed packaged foods:

  • Canned corn (processed) vs. corn chips (ultra-processed)
  • Apple juice vs. apple pie
  • Baked potato vs. french fries
  • Flour vs. cookies

Possible Health Effects of Eating Ultra-Processed Foods

For years, countless studies have linked ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of various health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and a shorter lifespan.

“The health risks of these foods are likely related to the specific processes of how these foods are made, the ingredients they contain, and the displacement of healthier unprocessed or minimally processed foods,” Glenn says.

Research links consuming ultra-processed foods with:

  • Type 2 Diabetes?In a?study of more than 100,000 adults, each 10 percent increase in the proportion of people’s daily calories coming from ultra-processed foods was associated with a 15 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Heart disease?Another study with more than 100,000 adults linked each 10 percent increase in the proportion of daily calories from ultra-processed foods to a 12 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease. A?separate study?found each additional serving of ultra-processed foods associated with a 9 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
  • Cancer?Each 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods was tied to a 12 percent higher risk of all cancers, and an 11 percent higher risk of breast cancer in particular, in another study with more than 100,000 participants.
  • Dementia?A?study with more than 70,000 adults 55 and older found each 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption associated with a 25 percent higher risk of dementia and a 14 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Early Death A?study of eating habits and longevity found people who consumed the most ultra-processed foods were 62 percent more likely to die prematurely.

If you’re trying to lose weight, you may also want to avoid ultra-processed foods. In a clinical trial, people given ultra-processed foods consumed about 500 calories more each day. Over two weeks, people eating ultra-processed foods gained about 2 pounds, while those eating unprocessed foods lost about 2 pounds.

Nonetheless, one limitation noted in many of the studies to date on ultra-processed foods is that they weren’t clinical trials designed to prove that eating these products directly causes specific diseases or weight gain, or sends people to an early grave.

Another limitation is that much of the research is based on systems like NOVA for defining ultra-processed foods based on how they’re manufactured — and not what nutrients they might contain, according to limitations noted in many of the studies.

“The category of ultra-processed is related to poor health, but it’s a very broad category,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, senior advisor to the provost and dean for policy at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

“A breakfast cereal with tons of whole grains and honey is ultra-processed but so is one with tons of sugar,” Dr. Mozaffarian says.

How to Identify Ultra-Processed Foods at the Grocery Store

Ultra-processed foods are typically prepackaged products, and they often contain lots of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats. If you’re an adult, aim to get less than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugars and saturated fats, or no more than 200 calories out of a 2,000 calorie daily diet and limit daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Focusing on these items is a good, if imperfect, way to identify ultra-processed foods, Glenn says.

“Consumers can examine the label and check out the ingredient list to get a sense if a product is ultra-processed or not,” Glenn says. “Ingredients are listed by weight in the ingredient list, so if you see a lot of ingredients you typically would not use in the kitchen at the beginning of the list then the food is considered ultra-processed.”

Look for words like: isolates, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, or hydrogenated oils, near the beginning of the ingredient list. If you see them, the food is probably ultra-processed, Glenn says. Additives on the label like colors and sweeteners are also a good indicator that you’re buying ultra-processed foods.

Beyond this, Mozaffarian says there are some other things to look for on labels and try to avoid:

  • Refined Sugar and Starch?Use a 10:1 rule when you look at how much carbohydrates and fiber you see on the label. You want to have at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Sodium?Choose products with the lowest amount of sodium on the label.
  • Saturated Fat?Total fat listed on the label should be much bigger than the amount of saturated fat. This means you’re getting products made with healthier fats.
  • Shelf Life?Before you pick up a food product, check the expiration date — it shouldn’t be too far away. Products that don’t expire for many months, or longer, have to be heavily processed to extend their shelf life.

Tips for Choosing Healthier Alternatives to Ultra-Processed Foods

Sometimes, avoiding ultra-processed foods is easier said than done. Cost and convenience are big factors, Glenn says. Unprocessed foods may be unavailable, or unaffordable, for many shoppers.

And looking for foods that are labeled as organic, all-natural, or plant-based won’t necessarily help you avoid ultra-processed products, Mozaffarian notes.

Here are some ways you may still get healthier alternatives to ultra-processed foods:

  • Buy processed foods with less sugar, salt, and fat: This will help you avoid some ingredients that are responsible for health problems, Mozaffarian says.
  • Get processed foods with better ingredients: Think whole-grain pasta or shredded wheat cereal instead of “regular” refined grain pasta or sugary cereals that look like dessert, Heller says.
  • Stock up on healthier staples: Keep on hand products like low- or no-sodium canned or dried beans, whole grains like quinoa or brown rice, low- or no-sugar and low- or no-sodium peanut butter or almond butter, trail mix without candy (in moderation), and frozen vegetables, Heller says. This can make it easier to quickly throw together a healthier meal.
  • Cook more meals at home: Preparing your own meals from whole foods lets you control the amount of added sugars, fats, and salts, Heller says.
  • Make your own snacks: Instead of buying things like sugary trail mix or granola bars, take control of the ingredients list yourself by combining things like dried fruits and nuts with whole grains, instead of getting the prepackaged versions of snacks, Glenn says.

Summary

For optimal health, try to limit or avoid processed foods, which are associated with numerous health problems and potentially premature death.

Pay attention to food labels and, when possible, opt for whole, fresh foods without labels at all.

If you currently consume ultra-processed foods, keep in mind that you don’t need to overhaul your diet all at once, Heller stresses. Making different choices a little bit at a time can add up to meaningful reductions in consumption of ultra-processed foods.

For instance, getting a pizza topped with veggies instead of sausage, or a falafel sandwich with tomato and cucumber instead of a ham and Swiss on rye are both good ways to avoid some ultra-processed products.

“Every meal is an opportunity to make a healthy choice,” Heller says.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  • Ultra-Processed Foods, Diet Quality, and Health Using the NOVA Classification System. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2019.
  • Monteiro C, Cannon G, Levy R, et al. NOVA: The Star Shines Bright [PDF].?World Nutrition. January–March 2016.
  • What Are Ultra-Processed Foods and Are They Bad for Our Health? Harvard Health Blog. January 2020.
  • Hall KD, Ayuketa A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism. July 2019.
  • Srour B, Fezeu, LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort. JAMA Internal Medicine. December 2019.
  • Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultra-Processed Food Intake and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Prospective Cohort Study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ. May 2019.
  • Juul F, Vaidean G, Lin Y, et al. Ultra-Processed Foods and Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Framingham Offspring Study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. March 2021.
  • Fiolet T, Srour B, Sellum L, et al. Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer Risk: Results From NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort. BMJ. February 2018.
  • Li H, Li S, Yang H, et al. Association of Ultraprocessed Food Consumption With Risk of Dementia. Neurology. July 2022.
  • Rico-Campà A Martinez-Gonzalez M, Alvarez-Alvarez I, et al. Association Between Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and All-Cause Mortality: SUN Prospective Cohort Study. BMJ. May 2019.
  • Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Agriculture. December 2020.
  • What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? MD Anderson Cancer Center. March 16, 2022.
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