Ultra-processed foods — Good? Bad?

By Pat Brinkman - OSU Extension

What are Ultra-processed foods? Ultra-processed foods are manufactured foods that went through many processes before getting to the supermarket. Most of these foods could not be made at home, as you would not be able to purchase all the ingredients needed, such as colorings, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, and modified starches (to name a few). Food examples include sugary cereals, ready-to-eat meals that contain additives, packaged baked goods such as cookies and croissants, potato chips, instant soups, and processed meats like salami, chicken nuggets (reformulated chicken pieces), sodas, and hot dogs. Usually ultra-processed foods have a long list of ingredients. The production techniques used reduce costs while making the products convenient.

NOVA Food Classifications (developed by Brazilian scientists and being widely used by others) have these four categories:

1. Unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, legumes, most meats, poultry, seafood, whole grains, yogurt (fermented milk), natural juice, coffee, and water.

2. Minimally processed cooking ingredients such as vegetable oils, sugar, salt, honey, butter, and lard. Some of these can cause health concerns.

3. Processed foods like fruit and vegetables canned, frozen or dehydrated; pasta; condensed milk; cured ham; traditional breads; beer and wine are examples. These processes are not health concerns.

4. Ultra-processed foods as defined in first paragraph.

The first three categories are used in homemade culinary preparations making cooking easier.

What is the problem with consuming ultra-processed foods?

· Consuming more ultra-processed foods increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, irritable bowl syndrome, diabetes, and cancer. Researchers are not certain why ultra-processed foods cause health problems.

· Many ultra-processed foods are high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, and calories and low in fiber and important nutrients. Some researchers estimate that 60% of the calories Americans eat are from ultra-processed foods.

· One major concern is when people choose these foods they tend to overeat causing weight gain. One study found people who ate more ultra-processed foods tended to eat 500 more calories a day than people eating unprocessed foods.

Ways to eat more whole foods

Check the ingredient label on foods. Limit as much as possible anything that contains artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, or substances you can’t pronounce or recognize. All ingredients should be ones you would be able to put in a food from your kitchen.

Be a Smart Shopper. When you go to the market think produce, dairy, nuts, legumes, meat, and fish. Most frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are good choices.

Make it yourself. Stock up on staple ingredients. Making salad dressings only take a few minutes. Add fruit to plain yogurt instead of purchasing sugary-fruit flavored yogurt.

Plan ahead for snacks. Choose whole fruits, nuts (make your own trail mix), hummus with veggies, etc. Many whole fruits are easy to take with you and don’t require refrigeration.

Skip creamers and sweeteners in your tea and/or coffee. Use milk instead and get used to not using a sweetener.

Consume whole foods which are unprocessed or minimally processed to help control your weight and maintain your health.

Pat Brinkman is the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Educator for Ohio State University Extension Fayette County.


By Pat Brinkman

OSU Extension