All you need to know about ultra-processed foods

Learn what defines an ultra-processed food and why too much is bad for us.

Humans have been preserving and processing foods for centuries in order to make it more flavorful, tasty, and non perishable. Nowadays some foods are ultra-processed, containing high levels of fat, salt, sugar, and artificial ingredients. Learn what defines an ultra-processed food and why too much can be bad for us.

History of processed food

Humans have been processing food for ages, yet the purpose of processing has changed over time. Ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, used various techniques, such as salting, drying, and pickling in order to extend its shelf life and keep it safe for consumption. 

The Industrial Revolution shifted food processing with techniques such as canning and milk pasteurization, or heating to kill harmful microbes. Refrigeration and freezing technologies then sparked the ability to package, store, and transport perishable foods. 

The mid-20th century advanced food science and ultra-processing, including food additives, preservatives, and flavor enhancers. This led to the rise of fast food chains and markets, offering quick and convenient meals (1). 

What is ultra-processed food?

The name, “ultra-processed food” came from the NOVA food classification system, developed by scientists at the University of São Paulo, Brazil (2). It categorizes food according to the level that they’ve been processed:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed: foods that have had no or little alteration to their natural state. 
      • Fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds. 
  • Processed ingredients: foods that have been processed in order to be used to be added to other foods.
      • Salt, sugar, oils. 
  • Processed foods: A combination of unprocessed foods and ingredients. 
  • Ultra-processed foods: Typically have five or more ingredients, usually not found in home cooking, such as artificial colors of flavors. 
      • Chips, candy, cakes, ice cream, instant soup, microwave dinners, sausage, ham, commercial bread, breakfast cereal, soda (3).

Why can ultra-processed foods be bad for us?

Ultra-processed foods are thought to account for 25-60 percent of daily calorie intake in many countries (4). The U.S. food supply is estimated to be 73 percent ultra-processed and about 52 percent cheaper than less processed foods (5). Although some people may choose them in order to save money, the cost of health is likely not worth it.

Stripped of nutrients 

Ultra-processed foods may start with natural ingredients, but are often stripped of nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which have powerful health benefits for our body. For instance, when a whole grain wheat kernel gets processed to make white bread, it’s stripped of fiber, folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin E, and minerals such as magnesium and zinc. Oftentimes ultra-processed foods also contain much higher calories, sugar, and fat content than natural foods which overtime may contribute to disease (6). 

Contributes to disease

Although large observational studies haven’t proved the cause and effect of ultra-processed food and heart disease, eating more has been linked to higher risk of heart disease and some cancers (7). People who were put on an ultra-processed food diet ate about 500 calories more per day and gained weight (8). This may indirectly increase the risk of chronic disease. 

Cause cravings 

A “hyper-palatable” food is a processed food that’s high in sugar, sodium and fat. These foods may influence our brain reward circuitry, similar to addiction. Many food companies aim to make the food hyper-palatable to keep us coming back for more Ultra-processed foods also tend to be easier to chew and eat, making us eat them faster than natural foods. 

Healthwashing: false food claims 

Ultra-processed food companies want business, and do so with colorful and creative marketing and sometimes deceptive claims. The labels are appealing and commercials entertaining, convincing us to buy more. They also make us think we’re making a smart choice when in reality the food may be unhealthy for us. 

Healthwashing is a term describing food products as more healthy than they really are, with the intention to promote their products. The problem is that these claims don’t take all the aspects of the food into consideration. 

Ultra-processed foods may have marketing or packaging claims that focus on one “healthy” aspect of the food. For example, products that are processed to be lower in fat tend to have more sugar (9). Other common claims are “source of”, “fortified with”, or “low”. 

Learn which healthwashing claims to watch for so you don’t get fooled by ultra-processed food marketing: Health Washing: Avoid Falling for False Food Claims

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