What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

A person checking the Nutrition Facts table of a product.Sep 1, 2023

By Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD

If you pay attention to health and nutrition headlines, you’ve heard a lot about ultra-processed foods lately. An internet search of the term returns more than 18 million hits. But what exactly are ultra-processed foods?

At present, FDA doesn’t have a formal definition for ultra-processed food. In fact, there is no universally agreed upon definition at all. The term ultra-processed foods has been popularized based on a food classification system called NOVA which was developed by Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. (Morea, 2021) His definition has changed several times since it was introduced in the early 2010s. Each food is categorized based on the “extent and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo” into these four groups:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (produce, eggs, meat, milk, nuts, etc.)
  2. Processed culinary ingredients (fats, herbs, salt, and sugar)
  3. Processed foods (foods that are combinations of groups 1 and 2 and which are made up of few ingredients)
  4. Ultra-processed food and drink products (foods that may not include unprocessed foods, have been made up of many ingredients including food additives, and ingredients not typically used in a home kitchen)

Ultra-processed foods are sometimes high in sugar, fat, and salt. They tend to be higher in sugar and lower in fiber (M, 2019). Foods that fit into this category may be considered convenience foods or may be negatively categorized as “junk food.” These are foods that contain a long list of ingredients, come in a box or package, and are made up of ingredients that the home cook may not recognize. Typically, these are ready-to-eat foods or heat and serve items requiring little effort to consume.

However, ultra-processed foods in the NOVA definition is a broad and inclusive category of many varied types of food products. The reality is that food processing has become complex in part to help improve food safety, improve shelf life which can reduce waste and decrease food costs, and make food preparation simpler for today’s busy lifestyle. (Braesco V, 2022) Just because a food is convenient, or contains ingredients you may not recognize, doesn’t mean it is unhealthy or should be off limits. For instance, foods like prepared and shelf-stable low-sodium soup, breakfast cereals, conventional peanut butter and ready to heat and serve frozen meals can all be safe and nutritious options and many help save time. Processing and ingredients alone do not automatically equate to lack of health benefits.

As an example, conventional peanut butter sometimes contains a small amount of sugar, salt and hydrogenated oils. Because of the small amount of hydrogenated oils, this peanut butter might be considered ultra-processed. Fully hydrogenated oils, like the ones used in conventional peanut butter, do not contain trans fats, which are no longer allowed to be added to food products. It does, however, provide the important function of emulsification and keeps the oil in peanut butter from separating. Many consumers prefer not to have to stir their peanut butter.

In general, health professionals and experts agree that most of what we eat should be made up of whole or minimally processed ingredients like the ones that fall primarily into the first three groups of the NOVA classification. These foods provide important vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other beneficial components. But foods that may be more processed and even include ingredients that we don’t use in a home kitchen can also be ways we eat important nutrients, while also helping improve food safety, shelf stability, and convenience.

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