Nearly 60% of the American diet comes from ultra-processed foods, according to a 2020 study published in the medical journal The BMJ.

Ultra-processed foods are different than processed foods. The American Heart Association explained it through examples. Carrots don’t grow like baby carrots — but they can be processed to become baby carrots. That’s an example of a processed food; any time an agricultural product is sliced or diced or juiced or heated, it becomes a processed food.

Ultra-processed foods are “created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food.” The AHA gave rice or pasta bowls which just require water and microwaving as an example. Some studies show that ultra-processed foods can pose a risk to long-term health and well-being.

Here’s a deeper look at what ultra-processed foods are and how they may impact your health.

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What are ultra-processed foods?

Some examples of ultra-processed foods, per Healthline, are soda, fried chicken, sweetened cereal and other foods. Even though the definition of ultra-processed foods is in a state of evolution, it generally refers to foods which have additives and may be high in oils, sugar and salt.

“In short, ultra-processed foods are probably what many of us already think of simply as processed foods — those shiny, packaged, nothing-to-do-with-nature products found at fast-food restaurants and gas station mini-marts,” Healthline said.

Here’s a simple way to think of it. Potatoes grow in nature, but have to be processed before eating them. Making a baked potato is an example of processing a potato. Additional processing and mixing in additives to French fries makes them an ultra-processed food.

Clinical Centers News said, “Foods were considered ‘ultra-processed’ if they had ingredients predominantly found in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents and emulsifiers. They included foods such as potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meats and French fries.”

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In order to make French fries, you need to submerse them in oil (often a couple of times) and add sugar as well as flavoring.

Here’s another example of the difference between a whole food, a processed food and an ultra-processed food. A lemon is a whole food. A lemon which is sliced can be considered a processed food. A piece of candy which has flavoring from a lemon on it would be considered an ultra-processed food. Essentially, ultra-processed foods go through multiple layers of processing before they are eaten and have various ingredients added to them.

How can you tell if a food is ultra-processed?

There are some simple tests to see if a food is ultra-processed. If you pick up the ingredients list and see ingredients which you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce (i.e. chemical names), then the food is likely ultra-processed.

You can also use critical thinking skills to determine how much a food has been processed. If you’re wondering if a bag of potato chips is processed or ultra-processed, you can think about how they had to slice the potato, deep fry the potato in oil and add seasonings, flavorings and additives, which lead to the preservation of the potato in the form of potato chips.

Some foods which are considered ultra-processed might be surprising. According to The Conversation, foods like packaged bread, sauces and plant-based milks can be considered ultra-processed food. There are some brands which are not considered ultra-processed — it depends on the ingredients in the food — so it’s not a hard and fast rule.

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Can beverages be ultra-processed?

Yes, they can. Beverages like soda can be considered ultra-processed. According to health.com, diet soda may be a beverage to avoid. “Besides the fact that diet soda has zero nutritional value, it contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.”

Like with ultra-processed foods, one can tell what an ultra-processed beverage is based on what ingredients are listed.

Are processed foods better than ultra-processed foods?

Typically, yes, they are. The American Medical Association said processed foods don’t contain as many (if any) additives as compared to ultra-processed foods and they tend to be more nutrient rich.

Processed food includes things like canned vegetables or canned beans or cheese, according to the Mayo Clinic. These foods are better choices than ultra-processed foods partially because they’re closer to whole foods than ultra-processed foods are. When vegetables or beans are canned with salt, they still remain vegetables and beans and retain some nutrients. Since ultra-processed foods move further away from processed foods, they aren’t as nutrient rich.

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Are deli meats processed foods?

Yes, but where the meat comes from determines how processed it is. When you go to the deli counter and watch them slice up some meat, that meat tends to be processed less compared to pre-packaged meat. According to Cleveland Clinic, it’s important to look out for nitrates in deli meat.

While freshly sliced deli meat has some natural nitrates, nitrates and high amounts of salt may be used in the preservation process for prepackaged deli meat. A nutrition letter from Tufts said even when natural sources of nitrate are used, it’s possible the meat poses the same health risks.

Processed meat, which the World Health Organization defined as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation,” is considered a Group 1 carcinogen.

The Cancer Council said, “The World Health Organization has classified processed meats including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurts as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer) which means that there’s strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Eating processed meat increases your risk of bowel and stomach cancer. Red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen which means it probably causes cancer.” The Cancer Council advises people to either entirely avoid processed meat or eat it minimally.

An alternative to deli meat when you want a sandwich with meat on it is to prepare your own meat for sandwiches. Buying fresh chicken or turkey and then roasting it will give you meat you can put on a sandwich for a week while avoiding the flavor enhancement and preservation process.

The bottom line is there are questions around the effects of deli meat, as well as some evidence which shows the processing and preserving of deli meat can negatively impact one’s health — even if the deli meat doesn’t add nitrates (instead using celery root powder or a similar ingredient).

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Are all processed foods unhealthy?

No. As Harvard Health Publishing said, once you start to cook something, then it’s being processed. Foods like baked potatoes and baby carrots are technically processed, and they can be safely eaten provided one doesn’t have an allergy or intolerance.

Other foods like frozen broccoli florets are considered processed. According to UCLA Health, that doesn’t mean you should give up your frozen broccoli. It comes down to the ingredients and how the food was processed.

UCLA Health said, “Some common additives on ingredient labels you may want to avoid include hydrogenated vegetable oils and tropical oils such as palm oil, preservatives such as sodium nitrite or nitrate, flavor enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), and added sweeteners such as corn syrup, cane juice or artificial sweeteners, among others.”

Practically speaking, this means picking up some frozen chicken or fish with some frozen vegetables or fruit is still a way to eat healthy, while it may be better to steer clear of foods with high sodium and long ingredients lists.

Beware the health halo

Is healthy an aesthetic? It might be. Brands use packaging and marketing as a way to communicate to health-conscious customers, but that doesn’t mean the product in question is necessarily healthy.

The health halo is a term for how consumers might see a product and think it’s healthy because of its presentation, and then overconsume the product as a result, per The Guardian. Sometimes a smaller serving size can make a food seem low calorie when it’s actually a small serving of a calorie-dense food — there are a lot of situations where it can be easy to think a food is healthy when it might not be the best choice.

Avoiding the health halo may involve looking at ingredients lists, serving sizes and considering how far removed a food is from whole foods.

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Are processed foods addictive?

There’s some evidence which shows highly processed foods might be addictive. The Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation at University of Michigan released a report which described the effects of some highly processed foods. “One major reason highly processed foods can be addictive is because they can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system at levels comparable to nicotine and alcohol.”

There’s some evidence from University of Michigan researchers which suggests highly processed foods can qualify as addictive substances. This is particularly an issue because of the health risks of highly processed foods.

What are the health risks of highly processed foods?

A 2023 study published in Lancet Journal found higher consumption of ultra-processed foods led to an overall increased risk for cancer and increased risk of mortality from having those physical health conditions.

Other research has shown higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to obesity, increased blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease and may increase mortality risk as well. While more research is needed to determine the precise links and other connections consumption of ultra-processed foods may have, according to The BMJ, initial research suggests highly-processed foods do pose some health risks.

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What to eat instead of ultra-processed foods?

Conventional wisdom says to avoid eating ultra-processed foods. It’s a good idea to shop the perimeters of the grocery store. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, along with some natural sources of protein, like meat or beans, is a good way to avoid eating ultra-processed foods.

Instead of eating pasta sauce from a jar, you can peel some tomatoes and make your own sauce. If you want to eat macaroni and cheese, instead of reaching for the box, you can make your own pasta from scratch and use minimally processed cheeses to make a homemade version.

It may take more time to make alternatives, but if you’d like to avoid ultra-processed foods, the best course of action is to eat a diet rich in whole foods.