What Is Ultra-Processed Food?

You probably know the health risks involved with eating processed foods. These kinds of foods are processed to a certain degree, hence the name. When a food item is processed, that means that it is changed from its natural state. There are different levels of processing, and some are worse than others. Being processed does not mean that a food is necessarily unhealthy. For example, shelled nuts are processed, but they are still considered to be a healthy, whole food. Another example of processing foods includes canned, pasteurized, or dried foods, per Healthline. This level of processing is more complex than simply shelling nuts, but it is needed to make many foods edible. In addition, other foods are cooked and frozen, and they are also considered minimally processed. Foods become unhealthy when sugar, fat, salt, or preservatives are added to them as part of the "process" that brings them to store shelves.

Ultra-processed foods have several unhealthy ingredients

While processed and ultra-processed sound alike, they are different. Foods that have five or more ingredients are considered to be highly processed, or ultra-processed (via Healthline). This means that there are many added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, fat, starch, and artificial flavors and preservatives. Soft drinks, frozen meals, hot dogs, cookies, and cakes are examples of ultra-processed foods, according to Harvard Health Publishing. You might be surprised to learn that some processed foods marketed as healthy, such as flavored yogurt, energy bars, instant noodles, and cereal, can be ultra-processed. The best way to know if a food is ultra-processed is to read what is in it. Most often, ultra-processed foods will have a long list of ingredients. One of the worst things about ultra-processed foods is that they are mostly empty calories with minimal nutritional value, according to Cooking Light.

A good way to avoid falling into the trap of buying ultra-processed foods is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, because most processed foods are located in the center isles. In addition, cooking your own meals can help.