Are Ultra-Processed Foods Always Bad?

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If you’re like most Americans, you eat way too many ultra-processed foods. Recent national surveys suggest we get about 57% of our calories from foods that have undergone multiple industrial processing steps or contain ingredients you wouldn’t have in your own home. 

Discovering ultra-processed foods

When you flip over your package of snack cakes and see ingredients like colors, preservatives, and emulsifiers listed, you’ve identified an ultra-processed food. Other favorite ultra-processed foods include BBQ potato chips, candy, ice cream, some breads, some breakfast cereals, and most protein bars. 

Are they harmful?

If 57% of your calories come from snack cakes, candy, ice cream, chips, and cheese puffs, then ultra-processed foods are doing your body harm. In fact, research shows that people whose diets are packed with ultra-processed foods are more likely to gain weight and develop health problems like type 2 diabetes.

But some ultra-processed foods are wholesome choices. So there’s no need to eliminate them all.

By definition (using the common NOVA classification), any food product with industrial ingredients is an ultra-processed food. If your veggie burger is made of soy protein or pea protein, your lunch is ultra-processed. Sipping on a smoothie of health-boosting fruits and vegetables as well as whey protein? The whey protein makes it ultra-processed. If you pour soy milk on your oatmeal, you’ve doused your breakfast with an ultra-processed food. Likewise, if your cornflakes are fortified with fiber or if your plain water is carbonated, they too are ultra-processed. 

The problem with food classifications

The problem is nuance. It’s comfortable – human nature even – to categorize foods, people, emotions, places, and so forth. So often, people put all carbohydrate-rich foods in the same category. But jelly beans and kidney beans have little in common. Similarly, snack cakes and veggie burgers are not the same.

Bottom line: Consider nutrient density when making your food choices. Instead of worrying over specific ingredients or food classification, ask yourself if the food offers you good nutrition. Aim for a yes at least 80% of the time. Your total diet is more important than any single food – unprocessed or ultra-processed.

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDCES, CHWC, FAND

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