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Ultra-Processed Foods: Beware of These Silent Health Saboteurs

Ultra-Processed Foods: Beware of These Silent Health Saboteurs


What are they?

There is no universally agreed definition of “ultra-processed.” However, a team of researchers led by Brazilian scientist Carlos A. Monteiro produced a working definition in 2009 when they devised the NOVA system to classify food types by their degree of processing. They defined ultra-processed food as “industrial formulations made mostly or entirely with substances extracted from foods, often chemically modified, and from additives, with little if any whole food added.” (Brown, 2022)

Basically, they’re relatively cheap, edible concoctions, usually packaged in plastic and/or boxed, that are produced through industrial processes for mass consumption. In most cases, they are ready to eat or require minimal preparation by the consumer, such as heating in a microwave, boiling briefly, etc. Extrusion (forcing food ingredients through a small hole to form them into shapes) and hydrogenation (adding hydrogen to harden oils or extend the shelf life of a product) are some common processing methods. As such, they are not something you would be able to produce in your own kitchen.

Some typical UPFs:
Breads (not homemade or bakery-made)
Breakfast cereals
Canned soup
Chicken nuggets
Corn chips
Energy drinks
Fast food (generally)
Fish sticks
Frozen pizzas
Fruit drinks
Ice Cream
Plant-based meat substitutes
Potato chips
Protein bars
Reconstituted meats (bologna, sausage, hot dogs, etc.)
Soda pop
Soy milk
TV dinners
Vegetable oils (canola, corn, soybean, safflower, palm, sunflower oils, or blends of these oils)



What’s in them? (And what’s not?)

UPFs typically contain little, if any, whole foods and plenty of chemical additives to increase shelf life and add flavor, texture, aroma, and color. Sugar, salt, saturated fat levels, and calorie density (the number of calories for a given weight of food) tend to be quite high. They often contain large amounts of refined carbohydrates as well. You can identify a UPF by reading the ingredients on its packaging, which will include various chemicals most people can barely pronounce correctly and don’t understand.

The chain of processes a UPF undergoes removes most of the fiber and nutrients and breaks down the cell structure of any natural food ingredients it contains. Producers compensate for the lack of nutrients by fortifying UPFs, which is the practice of adding vitamins and minerals that don’t naturally occur in a product. (Of course, the fact that a product needs fortification suggests that it is intrinsically unhealthy.) However, the deficiency of fiber in UPFs enables the gut to digest them faster than whole foods, making them easy to overeat. In other words, they do not satisfy the appetite effectively. By contrast, the cellular structure of whole foods remains intact, so your gut understands how to digest them properly and more slowly, reducing your risk of overeating.



You can eat them, but…

Eating UPFs in large amounts can cause chronic inflammation inside your body, and obesity and diabetes are correlated with a high intake of UPFs. The eye test confirms those outcomes as well, as large percentages of the population in the U.S. and the U.K. are visibly overweight. In fact, the majority of caloric intake in both the U.S., the U.K., and Canada now comes from UPFs. (Anthony, 2022) (Monteiro, 2019) In Australia, about 60% of packaged foods are ultra-processed. (Clemons, 2020)

UPFs can be quite tasty and convenient, hence their popularity. However, we recommend that you limit how much and how often you eat them. Long-term, it’s wiser to feed yourself whole, healthy foods more often and in greater proportions than UPFs. One tactic you can use is to avoid stocking a lot of UPFs in your home, as ready availability makes them all the more tempting. Instead, opt to buy fresh, whole ingredients at the grocery store and prepare meals from scratch as often as you can.




Anthony, A. (2022, October 16). Fast food fever: how ultra-processed meals are unhealthier than you think. Retrieved July 19, 2023, from www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/oct/16/ultra-processed-food-unhealthier-harder-to-avoid-than-you-thought

Brown, S. (2022, July 06). What Does "Ultra-Processed Food" Actually Mean? Retrieved July 18, 2023, from www.verywellhealth.com: https://www.verywellhealth.com/defining-ultra-processed-foods-is-debated-5509462

Clemons, R. (2020, September 15). Ultra-processed food and why its bad for you. Retrieved July 18, 2023, from www.choice.com.ua: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/nutrition/nutrition-advice/articles/ultra-processed-food

Monteiro, C. (2019). Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. University of São Paulo, Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/S1368980018003762


*This newsletter has not been authored in whole or in part by any artificial intelligence tools.
*No content on this site, regardless of source or date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.


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