Ultra-Processed Foods: What to Know

By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

Many people don’t realize that there’s a difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods… and in fact, ultra-processed foods make up just over 60% of the total diet of adults in the US! A growing body of research studies point to the risks of eating too much food that is highly processed. Here is what you need to know!

Ultra-processed foods are typically mass-produced. They tend to be convenient, ready-to-eat and have a long shelf life (meaning, they won’t spoil easily). Ultra-processed foods are generally inexpensive, but they are also usually high in added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and additives such as food colorings, flavorings and emulsifiers.

Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked with weight gain, an increased risk of cancer (particularly breast cancer), an increased risk of heart disease, and an overall increased risk of death. These are good reasons to think about what you might be eating on a regular basis that is ultra-processed, and what you could do to cut back. Here are some tips:

  • Shop the perimeter of the store. The least-processed foods are found around the edges of your supermarket.
  • Look at the nutrition facts panel. Try to buy foods with the least number of ingredients.
  • Do it yourself wherever possible! While it can take a bit more time, flavoring plain yogurt with fruit or combining ingredients to make granola will mean eating fewer additives.
  • Cook more. Keep in mind that “cooking” doesn’t have to involve complex recipes. Using canned or frozen vegetables can also make cooking at home more affordable.
  • Focus on one or two small changes you can try. Start small. Pick one or two ultra-processed foods you want to try to eat less of. Talk with your family about WHY you’re trying to make these changes.    

Let’s get specific…

A group of Brazilian scientists proposed a food category system which sorts foods based on the degree of processing and the examples below are adapted from this system. It helps separate out those foods that have undergone some processing but are still generally healthy (such as canned vegetables, canned tuna or whole-grain bread made in a bakery) from those that are ultra-processed.

Take a look at the foods listed as ultra-processed. Are there any you eat on a regular basis? Are there one or two you might be able to limit or cut out entirely and swap for something in either the processed or unprocessed list? The goal is to make a few gradual changes so that you’re eating more unprocessed foods, and fewer ultra-processed foods.

Examples of unprocessed foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, barley, oats), eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, plain yogurt, herbs and spices.

Examples of processed foods: cheese, bakery-made or homemade bread, canned fruits & vegetables, canned meats, salted or sugared nuts/seeds, oil, butter, sugar, salt.

Examples of ultra-processed foods: soft drinks, chips, sweetened/flavored yogurt, prepared frozen dishes, commercial bread/crackers/baked goods, frozen pizza, candy, breakfast cereals, snack bars, fast food burgers, hot dogs, sausage, deli meats.

One way to eat fewer ultra-processed foods is to cook more at home. Here are three recipes you can make at home, rather than purchasing the ultra-processed versions at the store… without trading flavor or taste!

Homemade Chicken Nuggets

Serves: 2. Calories: 311. Carbs: 3 grams. Protein: 24 grams.

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
½ cup flour (or ½ cup almond flour if gluten free)
1 Tbsp Italian seasoning
2 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. In bowl, stir together the flour, and spices. Cut chicken up into 1 inch thick pieces, trimming off and discarding any excess fat. Toss chicken with the olive oil and then place each piece in the bowl with the flour and spices, making sure each piece is well coated. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn on the broiler & place under broiler for an additional 3-4 minutes to make the outside crispy. Serve immediately with mustard or hot sauce.

Strawberry Banana Yogurt

Serves: 2. Calories: 210. Carbs: 28 grams. Protein: 25 grams.

2 cup plain Greek non-fat yogurt
½ cup sliced strawberries
½ cup sliced banana
1 tsp honey or sweetener if desired

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Let sit for a few hours in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld.

Oven-Baked Potato Chips

Serves: 6. Calories: 116. Carbs: 12 grams. Fat: 7 grams.

2 medium Yukon Gold or Idaho potatoes peeled and thinly sliced on a mandolin
3 Tbsp vegetable oil (such as olive, canola or corn)
Seasonings as desired (salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, toasted sesame seeds, dried dill, etc.)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Slices potatoes into a bowl and immediately toss them with the oil. Season lightly & place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Season again if desired. Transfer to a rack to cool and become crispy.


While this article provides guidance about healthy eating, it’s important to stress that for many people, diet & exercise alone aren’t enough to reach a healthier weight. The good news is that there are safe and effective medical treatments available that can address the biological issues that make sustained weight loss difficult. To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.

(Information adapted from NOVA.)

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