What Is Ultra-Processed Food?

Ultra-processed food is a health buzzword you may have noticed in news headlines recently. Admittedly, “ultra-processed” sounds a bit scary, and the research around it is about as troubling as you’d expect.

In 2018, a report in The British Medical Journal uncovered a link between ultra-processed foods and an increased risk for cancer. And now, most recently, a study from JAMA Internal Medicine associated a high consumption of ultra-processed food with an earlier death.

But what exactly is ultra-processed food? And is it something you should be worried about? The short answer is yes—research suggests that ultra-processed food should be avoided altogether. Here’s what you need to know, including examples of ultra-processed foods and how to avoid them in your diet.

What Is Ultra-Processed Food?

“Ultra-processed food” is a term coined by Carlos Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health for the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 2009, Monteiro and his colleagues linked the global uptick in obesity and chronic disease to harmful practices in food production. As a result, Monteiro created a classification system called NOVA that groups all foods by their degree of processing:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Processed culinary ingredients
  • Processed foods
  • Ultra-processed food and drink products

Let’s take a closer look at the fourth category—ultra-processed food. According to Monteiro’s 2016 NOVA report, ultra-processed foods often include long ingredient lists and additives such as artificial flavors, added sugars, stabilizers, preservatives, and more. They may also boast flashy packaging and bold health claims on labels. The purpose of these ultra-processed foods is convenience. Many are ready-to-eat, require very little prep to be palatable, and are low in cost.

Ultra-Processed Foods List

In the NOVA report, Monteiro includes an extensive list of ultra-processed food examples:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged bread and buns
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Store-bought ice cream
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Instant noodles
  • Infant formula
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs

Some of these—like soft drinks—make sense, while others—like flavored yogurt—are more surprising. The easiest way to identify these is by reading the ingredient list. If you see anything wonky or unfamiliar, chances are it is ultra-processed. For example, popular hot dog brands like Oscar Meyer Classic Uncured Wieners contain a slew of odd ingredients you may want to avoid—specifically mechanically-separated turkey, chicken, and pork.

Processed vs Ultra-Processed Food

These two terms may sound similar, but they’re actually quite different from each other. A “processed food” means any food that has undergone a change before it’s ready to be sold. This can include canning, smoking, pasteurizing, and drying. Ultra-processed food takes this process one step further by incorporating additives such as added sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors, and colors.

Examples of processed foods include canned vegetables, canned broth, salted nuts, canned fish, plain yogurt, tofu, cheese, and smoked meats. While some of these foods may contain additives, they can be part of a healthy diet in moderate amounts.

Why Is Ultra-Processed Food Bad for You?

Due to their attractive packaging and presentation, ultra-processed foods tend to be consumed in excessive amounts. These foods are also empty calories, as most contain little nutritional value and are typically high in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.

The USDA’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars and saturated fat, and capping sodium intake at less than 2,300 mg per day. Instead, the majority of your calories should come from nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins.

A diet high in ultra-processed food makes it impossible to meet the USDA’s daily recommendations. To put this into perspective, let’s look at the nutrition breakdown for a large Cookie Dough Blizzard from Dairy Queen:

Calories: 1340, Fat: 52g, Saturated Fat: 30g, Sodium: 780mg, Carbohydrates: 200g, Sugars: 149g

If finishing this drink puts you well outside the USDA’s recommendations, what happens when you toss in a fast-food burger? Either way, the more ultra-processed foods you consume, the more you’re missing out on key nutrients in your diet.

How to Limit Ultra-Processed Food

While Monteiro’s NOVA report recommends avoiding ultra-processed foods altogether, doing so is easier said than done. Ultra-processed foods are virtually everywhere: in vending machines, fast food restaurants, and grocery stores. In the meantime, we advise following the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines and doing your best to meet your recommended daily intakes for nutrients like fiber and protein, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Lastly, follow these helpful tips to limit your intake of ultra-processed foods:

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, instead of the center aisles.
The center aisles are where you’ll find the vast majority of ultra-processed foods. Focus on filling your cart with fresh produce, as well as legumes and whole grains.

Get into the habit of checking ingredient lists and nutrition facts.
Your smartphone is a valuable resource at the grocery store. Use it to look up unfamiliar ingredients as you’re shopping.

Make smart choices when dining out.
Fortunately, restaurants are now offering more health-conscious meals these days—use our Dining Out Guide to ensure you’re sticking to the best options.

Cook more at home.
This is the easiest way to limit your intake of ultra-processed food. Not only is cooking at home fun, but it also gives you the most control over what goes into your food. Need inspiration? Start with these Clean Eating Recipes for Weeknights for easy, fast, and healthy recipes.

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