Are You Eating Ultra-Processed Foods?

Dr. Christopher McGowan
febrero 20, 2023

Ever since the Industrial Revolution prompted dramatic changes in how food is produced, there has been a shift toward making products that are easier to package, longer-lasting, and convenient to eat in the midst of our increasingly busy lives. These foods, prepared in massive quantities and sold in grocery stores, are generally referred to as processed. But not all foods are produced in the same way. Some involve minimal food processing, and some are infused with various additives, preservatives, and dyes to make them more efficient to produce and sell.  

How Are Processed Foods Defined and Categorized?        

The truth is that virtually everything we eat is processed in some way. Even most of the fruits and vegetables that are sold raw are still subject to production processes where they are cleaned and sorted. Processing in itself isn’t bad; in many ways, through processes like pasteurization and filtering, food is safer than it ever has been. But at the same time, it has become clear that the replacement of freshly prepared meals with convenience foods has been a contributing factor in the rise in obesity and obesity-related conditions in the United States. 

To better understand the different levels of processing in the food system, public health and nutrition experts have designed classification systems over the years. The system that is used most frequently in scientific literature is called NOVA. NOVA classifies all foods into four categories based on their level of processing: 

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods: Foods in this category are the least processed and include the edible parts of plants, animals, fungi, and algae after being removed from their natural state. Any processing done to these foods is limited to removing inedible or unwanted parts and preparing for packaging. Examples would be removing stems and leaves, butchering meat into cuts, or even pasteurizing milk. The goal of these processes is to preserve the natural foods, make them able to be stored properly, or ensure they are safe to consume.  
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: Substances in this group are generally derived from the foods in the unprocessed or minimally processed group. These items require well-defined production methods to take raw or nearly-raw foods and make products that are suitable for use in commercial or home kitchens. Examples include butter, sugar, salt, and oils. These ingredients are not intended to be used by themselves, and their purpose is to be used in combination with other foods to create complete meals. 
  3. Processed foods: In general, the foods in this group are made by combining foods from group 1 with ingredients from group 2. Examples include bottling or canning fruits and vegetables by adding salt, sugar, oil, or other ingredients that increase flavor or extend shelf life; it can also include salted or cured meats like deli meat. In most cases, processed foods in group 3 are recognized as modified foods from group 1 with two or three ingredients meant to enhance them. While foods in this group can sometimes be eaten by themselves, they are often intended as part of an overall balanced meal.  
  4. Ultra-processed foods: Foods in this group are industrial formulations that are made largely from substances that are extracted from foods or synthesized from food substrates. For instance, high-yield crops like corn can be fractioned into separate sugars, fats, proteins, and starches and made into products like high-fructose corn syrup. These products are often further processed using industrial techniques and combined together or added to products with minimal amounts of whole foods. Most food additives and sweeteners fall into this category, as well as the final products that use them. 

Examples of Highly Processed Foods

The average American diet has changed significantly over the past few decades, and increases in the availability of processed foods is one of the primary reasons. In fact, according to a study from 2015, it is estimated that 57% of the American diet comes from ultra-processed foods; moreover, nearly 90% of the energy from those foods comes from added sugars. It would probably surprise most people to learn just how many of their favorite, everyday foods come from an industrial food production process. Below are some common examples of ultra-processed foods:

  • carbonated soft drinks like colas and other sodas
  • many fruit juices and fruit drinks
  • salty packaged snacks like potato chips   
  • breakfast cereals 
  • mass-produced packaged bread and baked goods
  • fruit yogurt 
  • candy 
  • cookies
  • cakes and cake mixes
  • margarine and other spreads
  • meat products like hot dogs, sausage, and Spam
  • instant soup and pasta mixes
  • fast food items like chicken nuggets and fish sticks 
  • meal replacement shakes or powders

The Health Effects of Processed Foods  

With all the highly processed foods listed above, an individual serving isn’t necessarily a terrible thing—having an occasional soda or cookie isn’t going to kill you. The problem is that these foods make up an oversized part of the typical American diet and the processes that are used to make them tend to strip the original foods of nutritional value and incorporate added salt, sugars, trans fats, and other components in order to make them taste better and last longer. 

As a result, when eaten regularly, these foods can begin to have a negative effect on many aspects of health—especially heart health. Trans fats, for instance, are known to increase cholesterol levels and lead to an increased risk of heart disease. Added salt can lead to high blood pressure and put stress on the circulatory system. Added sugar is strongly associated with obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. There is also evidence that a diet high in ultra-processed foods may lead to increased incidence of cancer and early death. 

Emphasize Healthy Eating    

The fact is that ultra-processed foods are all around us and difficult to eliminate completely. They can still be part of a healthy diet if consumed occasionally. Essentially all health organizations on the planet agree that a balanced diet should include significant portions of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk products. It should also include protein from sources like seafood, lean meat, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. At the same time, you should limit added sugars, sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol.  

True You Weight Loss Solutions 

Ultra-processed foods tend to be higher in calories, and this means they can also contribute to becoming overweight or obese. Switching to a healthier diet is important for overall health and wellness, but it doesn’t always lead to the weight loss we hope for. To really lose weight over the long term, a different approach is needed. That’s why at True You we offer non-surgical solutions that have a demonstrated track record of success. If you’d like to learn more about how to finally find the freedom you’ve been looking for, please contact us today to solicitar una consulta.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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