Open Accessibility Menu

The case for avoiding ultra-processed foods

The case for avoiding ultra-processed foods

Walk into any grocery store, and it’s hard to escape processed and ultra-processed foods. From potato chips to candy to frozen meals, these food products are considered staples of the American diet. You might think buying lower-calorie or lower-carb options means avoiding the worst health impacts. Recent research, however, raises concerns about the connection between ultra-processed foods and chronic conditions such as heart disease, even when taking lower sodium or sugar levels into account.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Brazilian scientists came up with the definition of ultra-processed foods most people use today. Their current classifications break food into four groups:

  • Group 1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • Group 2: processed culinary ingredients
  • Group 3: processed foods
  • Group 4: ultra-processed foods

Unprocessed foods are foods in their natural state—raw fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, meat. Minimally processed means the food has been altered slightly, such as simple cooking (roasting, boiling, steaming) or pasteurizing to make it safe to consume. Processed culinary ingredients are basic preparations of unprocessed foods—wheat that has been milled to become flour, or olives that have been pressed to create oil. Think of these as ingredients you might cook with.

Processed foods are what you get when you combine Group 1 foods with Group 2 foods. Pickled vegetables, cured meats and canned fruit are all in this category, along with meals you might cook yourself at home.

Ultra-processed foods, however, are processed foods created mostly with industrial food processing techniques. These foods are typically high in calories, salt, sugar, oils and fats, and they often contain a range of additives and preservatives. While “junk food” and most fast food would be considered ultra-processed foods, so are canned soups and frozen dinners.

What the research says about ultra-processed foods

No research is saying that you need to give up ice cream for all time, but studies show consuming excessive amounts of added sugar increases the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Those with highly processed diets are also likely to consume more trans fats and less fiber and certain nutrients than those who limit consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Adding sugar to your diet is likely to cause weight gain and may increase your risk of diabetes. Research has also shown an increase in ultra-processed food consumption was linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. One study found people who ate more than four servings of ultra-processed foods daily had a higher risk of death from all causes. Other studies have found a link between higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and higher rates of cancer.

How you can reboot your eating habits

You don’t need to switch to an extreme raw foods diet to avoid ultra-processed foods. Instead, try modifying your eating habits a little at a time. Get started with these tips:

  • Instead of cooking with canned vegetables, use fresh or flash-frozen vegetables.
  • Read food labels. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, consider whether you should buy the item.
  • Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, not the aisles. You’re more likely to find minimally processed foods in the produce, meat and dairy sections.
  • Swap out your favorite ultra-processed foods for less processed options. Think homemade oven-baked potato slivers instead of chips, or plain yogurt with fresh fruit instead of sugary strawberry yogurt cups.
Get more advice on adjusting to a diet with fewer ultra-processed foods from your Touro primary care provider. Make an appointment today.