Is Your Food Ultra-Processed? Here’s How To Identify?

Written by Dr. Amber Jones
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In today’s busy world, many of us rely on processed and packaged foods to save time. However, eating too many ultra-processed foods can negatively impact your health. What are ultra-processed foods?

They are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods, derived from food constituents, or synthesized in laboratories. Examples include sodas, mass-produced packaged breads, cookies, savory and sweet snack products, frozen meals, and more.

Distinguish Processed Foods vs Ultra-Processed Foods?

Processed Foods vs Ultra-Processed Foods

While conventional processed foods like canned vegetables and fruits involve some processing for preservation, ultra-processed foods go through significantly more industrial processing.

They contain little whole food content with synthetically produced flavors, textures, colors, and cheap fillers added in.

Conventional processed foods can keep people nourished, ultra-processed foods should not dominate your plate as they tend to be high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, salt, and chemical preservatives.

Research shows that higher consumption of these foods increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.

Luckily, with some effort, you can identify and limit your intake of ultra-processed foods. Now that we have understood what are ultra-processed foods, let’s see how you identify processed foods.

Is Your Food Ultra-processed?

Ultra-processed foods typically go through multiple processes during production such as extrusion, molding, and preprocessing. They contain long ingredient lists with components not usually used in cooking. Here are some ways to identify if your food is ultra-processed?

  • It comes labeled as “instant”: Instant ramen noodles, instant oatmeal, or instant pudding and drinks involve mixing processed ingredients with hot water or cold milk. Opt for minimally processed oats or make pudding from scratch instead. This is one of the major factors to look out for to identify if your food is ultra-processed.
  • It has cosmetic additives: Ingredients like dyes, flavors, or sweeteners are added to ultra-processed foods so they taste, smell, and look more appealing. Avoid products with a long list of additives.
  • Shelve-stable and convenient: Unrefrigerated baked goods, microwave popcorn, room temperature plant-based meat alternatives and ready-to-drink shakes fall under ultra-processed. Enjoy fresh-baked bread, air-popped corn kernels, homemade burgers, and smoothies made from real ingredients.
  • Contains fractionated oils: Seed and vegetable oils are often used in processed foods. Fractionating alters their tolerance to high heat. Stick to extra virgin olive oil and expeller-pressed oils.
  • Has refined carbs: Mass-produced breads, snacks, sweets, and breakfast cereals contain white flour and added sugars. Choose 100% whole grains instead.
  • Includes isolated ingredients: Protein powders, electrolyte drinks, and supplementation bars strip ingredients from whole foods. It’s better to get nutrients from balanced, minimally processed meals.
  • Designed to be addictive: Ultra-processed foods often contain perfectly combined fat, carbs, and sodium to light up reward pathways in the brain so you crave more. Be mindful of this when snacking.
  • Requires little to no cooking: Frozen pizzas, pre-made sandwiches, and packaged instant noodles take seconds to “cook”. Preparing meals with fresh ingredients is more nourishing.

How Do Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Health?

Is your food ultra-processed? Then Regularly consuming unhealthy processed foods  can impact the body in many negative ways:

● Weight gain: These calorie-dense and nutritionally poor products easily lead to overeating and obesity. Fiber, protein, minerals, and vitamins are often lacking too. Losing or managing weight becomes difficult.

● Increased inflammation: Additives like refined oils, emulsifiers, and high fructose corn syrup trigger widespread inflammation, which contributes to most chronic diseases.

● Gut imbalance: The additives and sugar disrupt beneficial gut bacteria, cause intestinal permeability, and decrease immunity. This leads to inflammation-related issues.

● Disease development: People who eat more ultra-processed foods are at higher risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, stroke, asthma, arthritis, depression, and cancer.

● Early mortality: One 2019 study found that each 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was linked with a 14% higher risk of death from any cause.

Reducing the intake of these foods is vital for protecting health. Ultra-processed items dominate grocery store shelves, but sticking to the perimeter with whole food ingredients makes avoiding them much easier.

What Foods Are Not Processed?

Now that you have understood is your food ultra-processed? Let’s see some foods that are not processed. Whole foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, yogurt, fish, and meat with minimal processing are not considered processed or ultra-processed. Emphasizing these foods in daily diets is recommended for health.

That being said, is bread a processed food? Bread can fall into both categories depending on the level of processing.

Sourdough and sprouted bread made from whole grain flour, fermented dough, and no artificial additives could be considered just processed foods. However, commercial white breads mass-produced in factories with additives would qualify as ultra-processed products.

Conclusion

Ultra-processed foods are industrial formulations made in factories with ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories. They dominate supermarket shelves today but negatively impact health in many ways. So it is important to know if your food ultra-processed. To avoid consumption, it’s important to identify and limit these products.

Telltale signs of ultra-processed foods include shelf-stable convenience, health claims on packaging, and refined carbs. They require little preparation, are designed to be hyper-palatable, and lead people to overeat. Products with isolated additives, fractionated oils, and misleading label terms are best avoided too.

Regularly consuming ultra-processed items promotes inflammation, gut issues, weight gain, and disease development. Studies show they increase the risk of various cancers, depression, stroke, and premature death. For better health, minimize intake of these foods in favor of balanced, home-cooked meals with whole food ingredients.

The next time you’re grocery shopping, consider whether those grab-and-go snacks or ready-made frozen entrees are worth the potential harm. Take a little extra time to prepare more nourishing food from scratch instead. Your body will thank you.

The question is - based on the information provided, will you make an effort to identify and limit ultra-processed foods in your diet going forward? What potential impact could this change have? Please share your thoughts below.

References

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Amber Jones is a sought-after dietitian nutritionist with expertise in public and community health. She holds a Masters in Public Health from Yale University and completed her dietetic internship with the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center

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