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
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.