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How to know what foods are ultra-processed — and eat less of them

Here’s how to know the difference between a processed food and an ultra-processed food

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An “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.

An “ultra-processed” lunch including brand-name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade.

Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock, NIH via Associated Press

Ultra-processed food is a term that refers to a food with additives and preservatives.

Researchers have raised concerns about the ways that ultra-processed foods could impact people’s health when it comes to metabolic issues, sleep apnea, cognitive decline, heart disease and weight management.

Here’s a closer look at what ultra-processed foods are and how to eat less of them.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Think of ultra-processed foods as highly processed foods. They are “made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats,” according to Harvard Health Publishing. “They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.”

“These are foods that are industrial creations,” Allison Sylvetsky, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, told NPR.

These are the kinds of foods “you wouldn’t be able to recreate in your own kitchen,” Emma Hartfield and Kerry Torrens wrote for BBC Good Food. “It is manufactured to be convenient and cheap, has a long shelf life and is generally ready to eat or ready to heat.”

Ultra-processed foods include potato chips, frozen meals, soft drinks, chicken nuggets, sweetened breakfast cereals and more, according to the Cleveland Clinic. When trying to determine if a food is ultra-processed, you can ask yourself if it has been fried or if there has been sugar or fat added to it, and then you can get a better idea of whether it’s ultra-processed or not.

Examples of ultra-processed foods

Here’s a list of ultra-processed foods from the Gastrointestinal Society:

  • Candy.
  • Packaged snacks like cookies.
  • Mass-produced packaged bread.
  • Sweetened yogurt.
  • Instant soup.
  • Instant sauce.
  • Fruit drinks.
  • Pre-prepared pasta dishes.
  • Ready-to-heat pizzas.

What is the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods?

When a food is processed, that means a process like cutting, steaming, baking, etc. is done on the food item. So, take a potato as an example. It’s a whole food that grows in nature. After a potato is baked to become a baked potato, it has been processed. Even though it’s a processed food, that doesn’t make it an ultra-processed food. A potato would become an ultra-processed food if it was deep-fried with salt to make fries.

Processed foods include homemade bread, frozen vegetables, canned tuna, frozen meat, no salt added canned vegetables, nuts and other foods, per the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. On the other hand, ultra-processed foods included boxed pasta, powdered soup, sweetened cream cheese and other products.

The British Heart Foundation explains what a processed food is in this way: It is a combination of minimally processed foods like vegetables, fish, beans, pulses, eggs, fruit, etc. that is combined with processed ingredients like salt, olive oil or sugar. An ultra-processed food has more additives, preservatives, emulsifiers and other ingredients added to it, which makes it different than a processed food.

So, say you’re at home and you pick up a crown of broccoli. Broccoli is minimally processed. When you roast it with olive oil and salt, you have processed the broccoli.

How to eat less ultra-processed foods

Here are seven ways to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.

  1. Find an easy meal to make. Instead of reaching for a frozen meal or take-out, develop an easy meal you have the ingredients for on hand that you can throw together in a couple of minutes. For example, you could scramble a couple of eggs and pair with some fruit for a quick meal or you could throw together a salad with whatever vegetables you have in your fridge. Another option is chopping up vegetables like potatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini and more at the start of the week and then roasting them whenever you need a dinner that doesn’t require much time for you to prep.
  2. Switch out your snack. Common snack foods that come in shiny bags are often ultra-processed. Swapping your snack from something like packaged cookies or chips to carrots or celery can help you to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.
  3. Stop drinking sweetened beverages. Sweetened beverages can be fun to drink once in a while, but there are other options you can try to drink fewer of them. Instead of drinking a soda with dinner, you could make fruit-infused water at home with fresh strawberries and mint for a refreshing beverage.
  4. Don’t buy ultra-processed foods. While this one might seem obvious, you can’t eat what you don’t have. If you’d like to change your eating habits in the long term, it might be important to stop buying ultra-processed foods altogether and only eat them when you go out for dinner or develop a similar routine.
  5. Switch out your meat. Some meats are ultra-processed while other meats, like fresh chicken or ground turkey, are less processed. Switching to less processed meat (or eating more beans and lentils) is one way to eat less ultra-processed foods.
  6. Cut out added sugars. Once you start looking for added sugars, you will likely see added sugars in places you may not have expected. Say you pick up a jar of sauce at the grocery store — it’s possible the sauce will have added sugar as well as preservatives in it. If you focus on cutting out added sugars, you can eat fewer ultra-processed foods. Plus you could learn a quick sauce recipe to make at home.
  7. Make your favorite foods less processed. If you love to eat a burger and fries, there are ways you can make it less processed. For example, instead of deep-frying the potatoes to make fries, you could bake them or toss them in the air-fryer. Even though it takes more time, you could make your own bun as opposed to picking up a packaged one. Or you could wrap the burger in lettuce.