Are ultra-processed foods bad for you? The answer is that it depends on the definition of the term and how often and in what quantities you consume them.

Are Ultra-Processed Foods Really That Bad For You?

About 60 percent of the U.S. diet is comprised of ultra-processed food. That’s no surprise considering that so much of what we eat is processed: deli meat, packaged bread, soda, chips—even the oat milk in your fridge.

A recent report, however, made headlines for showing how much ultra-processed foods negatively impact our health. The review of 45 studies in the British Medical Journal found strong links between eating lots of processed food and cardiovascular disease, mental disorders, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and mortality. But will eating chips occasionally really send us to an early grave?

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

“The terms processed and ultra-processed are thrown around a lot lately and are viewed as negative, but it’s important to know what makes a food processed vs. ultra-processed,” said Diana Rodriguez, MS, RD, CPT at New York City Nutrition.

Nearly every food item we buy at the store is processed in some way. Take your standard turkey sandwich. It’s probably made with packaged bread, sliced cheese, deli meat, and perhaps some mayo and mustard—all of which are processed.

Using the USDA definition, Rodriguez said that processed food is any food that’s undergone a change from its natural state, which can include washing, cooking, freezing, drying, packaging, and much more.

Minimally processed foods have only been slightly altered. Think sliced and packaged fruit and vegetables, milk, and eggs.

And then you have ultra-processed food, which she said undergoes multiple processes like extrusion and milling, and has a lot of added ingredients. Most nutrients are stripped, and there’s usually a high amount of sugar, fat, and sodium in ultra-processed foods. This includes obvious items like soda, candy, and hot dogs, along with sneakier groceries like breakfast cereal, plant-based meats, and dairy substitutes.

There’s also the widely-used NOVA system, which categorizes food based on how processed it is. The NOVA system has four categories: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.

Processed foods are sold commercially, and they’re often designed to have a long shelf life and to be convenient. With the average American not eating enough fiber from produce, Rodriguez said that minimally processed sliced fruits and vegetables at the store make it more convenient to eat more produce without the added need to wash, dry, and cut it.

“Even though processed foods like bread, cheese, tofu, canned fruits and vegetables have been altered, they are not detrimental to your health. They are easy, convenient and help you build nutrient-rich meals to keep you healthy and satisfied,” she said.

Are Ultra-Processed Foods Bad for You?

Research shows that a diet filled with ultra-processed foods that are high in added sugar, salt, and fat can impact one’s health negatively if eaten consistently. But there are some caveats. “While we could all find ways to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods, it’s important to consider the nutritional value of the food, not the processing itself,” she said.

In 2023, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center published a study. It proved that a healthy diet adhering to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, where 91 percent of calories comes from ultra-processed food, is actually possible. The foods were deemed ultra-processed using the NOVA scale.

This shows that there’s a lot of variation in the category, and just because something is called ultra-processed, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “bad” for you.

“The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option,” said Julie Hess, ARS Research Nutritionist at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, in a USDA press release.

“For example, for people who have milk allergies or choose a vegetarian/vegan diet, soy milk is the best nutrient-rich option,” said Rodriguez. “Does that mean the plant-based option is bad because it falls under the ultra-processed? No.”

While research shows the negative impacts ultra-processed food can have on health, studies also show that it can fit within current dietary guidelines. It appears that it ultimately comes down to the individual and the types of food they’re eating. A diet where the main ultra-processed foods are candy and soda, is arguably much different than one that’s comprised of fiber-rich bread and low-sugar breakfast cereal.

Ultra-Processed Food and Your Diet

When it comes to advising her clients, Rodriguez tries to meet them where they are by learning their diet history and making small changes to improve their health. If you’re buying ultra-processed foods, she recommends reading the label and ingredient list to make an informed decision. Try to select options with the least sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.

You can also try to cook more of your meals at home. “Cooking at home helps you become more aware of your food choices and ingredients being added,” she said.

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