Ultra-Processed Foods: What to Know

Blog, Food

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.


  • Shop the perimeter of the store. The least-processed foods are found around the edges of your supermarket.
  • Look at the nutrition facts panel. Buy foods with the least number of ingredients.
  • DIY. While it can take a bit more time, combining ingredients to make granola or flavoring plain yogurt with fruit will decrease the number of additives in your diet.
  • Cook more. Keep in mind that “cooking” does not have to be involved with complex recipes. Combining unprocessed fresh meats, grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and spices along with some processed food
  • Focus on one or two changes you can try. Start small. Pick one or two ultra-processed foods you might try to reduce. Talk with your family about the importance of making these changes.

A group of Brazilian scientists proposed a food category system which sorts foods based on the degree of processing and the table below is 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 in the ultra-processed column. 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 some gradual changes so that your overall intake is less from the left hand column and more from the right.

Eat less of these…………………………………………………..And more of these

Ultra-processed Processed Unprocessed
Mass produced for convenience, Includes ingredients used for cooking; Edible parts of plants or animals
Soft drinks


Sweetened, flavored yogurt

Prepared frozen dishes

Commercial bread, crackers, baked goods

Frozen pizza


Breakfast cereals

Snack bars

Fast food burgers, hot dogs, sausage, deli meats


Bakery or homemade bread

Canned fruit or vegetables

Canned meats

Salted or sugared nuts and seeds








Nuts /Seeds


Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, bulghur)


Meat, poultry, fish

Plain yogurt

Herbs and spices

Adapted from NOVA.  https://world.openfoodfacts.org/nova

One way to eat fewer ultra-processed foods is to cook more at home. Here are three recipes for things you can make at home rather than purchasing 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 and place under broiler for an additional 3-4 minutes to make the outside crispy. Serve immediately with mustard or a hot sauce if desired.

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 and 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 and 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.