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Published on September 06, 2022

processed foods illustration

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods and How Bad Are They?

The standard American diet, or SAD, lives up to its name. It’s downright depressing.

If you’re a typical American adult, more than half of your calories come from “ultra-processed foods” or UPFs. Even worse: a full two-thirds of the calories in an American teen’s diet come from ultra-processed foods.

It’s an issue – a BIG issue – because countless studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption to higher risks of:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Some cancers

Yes, they are hard to avoid. Smart folks specifically engineer them, so we see ultra-processed foods as budget friendly, convenient and delicious.

But what exactly are they?

Defining Processed Foods

Several food-classification systems, including the Nova system, were designed to help create four food categories, all based on level of processing.

They include:

Group 1

These unprocessed or minimally processed foods include things we eat exactly as they are found in nature. Some foods might be cleaned or sorted, but nothing is added. Group 1 foods sometimes are ground, dried or frozen.

What this includes:

Natural, packaged, cut, chilled or frozen vegetables, along with fruits, brown rice, corn kernels, wheat berries, eggs, lentils, raw nuts and seeds, fresh or dried herbs and spices and raw meat are some examples.

Group 2

These are processed culinary ingredients, often extracted from natural foods. Processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing and Group 1 ingredients for a wider variety of dishes. Fermenting is another way they are created.

What this includes:

Oils from seeds, nuts and fruits; white and brown sugar; honey, syrup from maple trees, butter and salt are in this group.

Group 3

When you combine a few items from Groups 1 and 2, the result is these foods. Although these foods are processed, they have to be recognizable from their “original” food source. The ingredient list for each should only include two or three items.

What this includes:

Canned beans and legumes, and vegetables preserved in salt or vinegar, are examples. Tomato extracts, pastes and concentrates; fruits in sugar syrup or juice; salted nuts; canned fish; freshly made cheeses and breads also fit in this category.

Group 4

Here’s the stuff we eat the most of – but that we should try to avoid. These are UPFs.

Foods with what’s called “industrial formulations typically of five or more ingredients” are ultra-processed. They’ll have ingredients not commonly used in kitchens, big or small. You can’t buy them at the grocery store.

Things like hydrolyzed proteins, modified starches and hydrogenated or “interesterified” oils are common. These substances are molecularly modified – parts are rearranged chemically to imitate the taste/smell/feel of unprocessed foods.

Other things are added to hide undesirable qualities, and they can include colors, flavorings and non-sugar sweeteners.

These Group 4 foods also include additions like:

  • Sequestrants, which improve the quality and stability of foods.
  • Humectants that attract water from the air.
  • Emulsifiers that can help products combine hard-to-mix ingredients, such as oil and water.

What this includes:

There are way-too-many examples of these foods. Pre-packaged snacks, candy, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened and flavored yogurts are all Group 4. So too are margarines, pre-prepared meats and vegetables, pizza and pasta and a wide range of meal replacements.

While health trends focus on nutrients, such as low-carb or low-fat, manufacturers easily and quickly reformulate products to fit any popular style.

In short:

  1. Choose foods in Groups 1, 2 and 3.
  2. Avoid foods in Group 4.

Lauren Cornay, RD, LN, is a registered dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital. Learn more about nutrition and your health by emailing her about services.

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