How to Spot Ultra-Processed Food (and What to Choose Instead)

Ultra-Processed Food - Healthy Food for Weight Loss - Health Effects of Processed Food - One Drop

Read time: 5 minutes

  • Ultra-processed foods are food products that undergo extensive industrial processing, often using additives, artificial ingredients, and refined substances. 
  • Eating too much ultra-processed food can contribute to health complications such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. 
  • Learn how to identify the four levels of food processing: minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed, and ultra-processed.

Ultra-processed foods have become immensely popular in recent years. Their convenience, palatability, and long shelf life make them an easy option for busy people, including moms with young kids.  

More than half—57% to be exact—of calories in the American adult diet come from ultra-processed food. The number is even higher for children. More than two-thirds—or 67%—of calories eaten by children and adolescents came from ultra-processed foods in 2018, up from 61% in 1999. 

Grabbing a bag of chips on the way out the door or popping in a frozen pizza at the end of a long day can be tempting if you’ve been chasing after little ones all day. But relying on ultra-processed foods can have long-term consequences for your health and weight. 

Research has shown a strong association between eating ultra-processed foods and various health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. One long-term study found that children who eat mostly ultra-processed food are more likely to become overweight or obese in adulthood. 

What is Ultra-Processed Food?

Ultra-processed foods are food products that undergo extensive industrial processing, often using additives, artificial ingredients, emulsifiers, thickeners, colorings, and refined substances. These foods are typically ready-to-eat or require minimal preparation, making them convenient and tempting for busy people. 

Ultra-processed food is engineered to be palatable or even hyperpalatable. They often contain little to no nutritional value and are typically high in calories, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium. They’re commonly marketed as convenient and time-saving options.

It’s important to note that not all processed foods are considered ultra-processed. Minimally processed foods such as frozen fruits and vegetables, canned beans, or whole-grain bread can still be part of a healthy diet. The focus should be on reducing or avoiding highly processed options that lack nutritional value and have negative impacts on health when consumed excessively.

How Ultra-Processed Food Affects Your Health

There is no such thing as “good food” or “bad food.” It’s all about finding balance. But eating mostly ultra-processed foods can have a negative effect on your health and weight. These negative effects are cumulative and can vary depending on your individual diet pattern and overall lifestyle choices. Here are the top negative effects eating a diet heavy with ultra-processed foods can have on your health. 

Encourages weight gain
Ultra-processed foods are designed to be addictive, packed with refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives that can hijack your taste buds and lead to overconsumption. This can result in exceeding your daily calorie needs, ultimately leading to weight gain and increasing your risk of obesity.

Provides little nourishment
Ultra-processed foods are typically high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, while being low in essential nutrients. These foods often lack the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that our bodies need to function optimally. By replacing these processed options with whole foods, you can provide your body with the nourishment it craves.

Increases the risk of chronic conditions
Studies have linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These foods are associated with elevated blood pressure, unfavorable lipid profiles, and insulin resistance.

Disrupts appetite regulation
Ultra-processed foods are often designed to be highly palatable and can trigger addictive-like eating behaviors. They can override the body's natural hunger and fullness cues, leading to overeating and difficulty in maintaining a healthy weight. The lack of fiber and vitamins and minerals in these foods can further disrupt appetite regulation.

Contributes to inflammation
Ultra-processed foods have been linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with a range of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats present in ultra-processed foods can contribute to systemic inflammation.

The Four Levels of Food Processing

Foods can be broken down into four groups based on their level of processing. Being familiar with each group can help you start selecting foods that are closer to their natural form and lower in unwanted additives. 

Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods

Unprocessed Food - Levels of Food Processing - Robin by One Drop

Processed Culinary Ingredients

Processed Culinary Ingredients - Levels of Food Processing - Robin by One Drop

Processed Foods

Processed Foods - Levels of Food Processing - Robin by One Drop

Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-Processed Foods - Levels of Food Processing - Robin by One Drop

    The Bottom Line

    By limiting ultra-processed foods and opting for whole, unprocessed alternatives, you can nourish your body and support a healthy weight. Remember to read labels, choose foods with recognizable ingredients, and prioritize whole foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals. Your journey towards a healthier lifestyle starts with small, intentional steps. 

    This article has been clinically reviewed by Hanna Rifkin, RD, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop.

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    Sara Huneke
    Jul 10, 2023

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