Sunday, August 22, 2021

Should You Avoid Ultraprocessed Food?

Hard to avoid “processed” food.  Some of my students say that to eat healthy one should avoid “processed” food.  But most of the food we eat is “processed” to some extent.  Eating whole wheat bread is healthy but bread is “processed” as they harvested the grain, milled the grain, made the flour and then made the bread.  Cereal, even whole grain cereal, is processed.  Canned vegetables are processed as is canned fruit in syrup.   

But some food is “ultrprocessed” so much so that this processing adversely affects the nutritional processing of the food.  What are ultraprocessed foods and how is the nutritional value of this type of food affected?  Are there any consequences to your health if you eat a lot of ultraprocessed food?

What are ultraprocessed foods?

Not only are these foods processed but often these foods have lots of added sugar, salt, and fat as well as preservatives and many have artificial colors.  Foods that are considered ultraprocessed include:

  • Frozen meals : premade meals
  • Processed meats: Hot dogs, cold cuts like bologna, sausage, bacon
  • Fast food – chicken nuggets, French fries, etc
  • Packaged desserts like cookies and cakes
  • Salty snacks like Cheetos

I am always surprised when reviewing student’s 24-hour diet recalls.  Many students have few, if any, real food.  For some students, almost everything they eat is processed or ultraprocessed.  Some have no fresh fruit or vegetables and the “juice”, if there is juice, is often fake juice like Sunny D or they think lemonade is “juice”. 

A study in BMJ looked at 9317 study participants and found that ultraprocessed foods accounted for a whopping 57.9% of the daily calories.  Most of the added sugar in these participants diets came from these ultraprocessed foods at about 89.7%.  Probably because the ultraprocessed foods consumed consisted of added sugar making up about 21% of the calories.  They noted this amount of added sugar is eight times the amount in processed foods.  A conclusion of this study was that just by reducing ultraprocessed food intake, one would reduce their added sugar intake.   Reducing added sugars is one of the goals of the Dietary Guidelines. 

Learn to recognize ultraprocessed foods.  (adapted from processed food and cheese) 

Minimally processed foods

Processed foods

Untraprocessed foods


Apple jelly

Apple pie

Baked potato

French Fries

Potato Chips

Real cow’s milk

American Cheese

Cheese Food

Whole wheat flour

Whole wheat bread

White bread

 How is the nutritional value of ultraprocessed foods affected by the processing and additives? 

More calories eaten – Another study in Cell Metabolism, found that people eating ultraprocessed foods ended up eating about 500 more calories per day as compared to people eating a more unprocessed diet.  As noted above, ultraprocessed foods often contain more added sugar and often are low in protein and higher in carbs and fat content. 

Weight gain – the study found that people eating an unprocessed food diet ended up gaining about 2 pounds a month.  When they switched to an unprocessed food diet plan, they lost about 2 pounds a month.  What is interesting is that the study participants were offered 3 meals a day with the SAME amount of calories.  But, those on the ultraprocessed food diet ate about 500 more calories a day.  There are many diets for obesity but one way to help lose weight may be to cut back on ultraprocessed foods. 

Health Risks – eating more ultraprocessed foods can adversely affect your health.  A study in France, found that people eating diets high in ultraprocessed foods had increased risk of heart disease. 


  1. Choose real food over ultraprocessed food.  Make your own peanut butter and jelly sandwich and don’t buy Uncrustables.  Enjoy some whole wheat toast and jelly and skip the POPtarts.  Eat an apple or other fresh fruit instead of fruit Roll-ups.   
  2. Cold cuts – choose fresh cut deli meat over bologna, salami.
  3. Choose real cheese over processed cheese food.  If it says, “cheese food” or “cheese product” it is not real cheese.  In fact, cheese food might be only 51% cheese. 
  4. Eat “close to nature”.  One of my students said he eats food close to the land.  His diet was actually very healthy as most of his food was unprocessed or minimally processed.  He ate the apple, not applesauce, the whole grain cereal, not the POP Tart. 

How much ultraprocessed food is in your diet?  Can you cut back on some ultraprocessed foods and reach for the healthier minimally processed food?  

Choose real cheese and not cheese food or cheese product.

Sources:  ultraprocessed foods , BMJ , recognize , processed food , cheese , Cell Metabolism , study , cheese food    Image Sources:  Ultraprocessed food , Unprocessed to processed foods , American cheese 


  1. I love the recommendation to skip the Uncrustables. Check our the NOVA criteria for processing. Even mass produced bread is Ultra-processed (so the Whole Wheat Bread may not be as healthy as we say it is).

    1. Thank you for your comment. Skipping Uncrustables and making your own Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich is a much healthier option. Many people are confused when buying bread and think Wheat Bread is whole grain bread when it may not contain any whole grains.