You’ve been warned about processed foods (as opposed to whole foods) because research has shown us time and again that a diet rich in a processed foods is often high in added sugar, sodium, and trans fats and, therefore, comes with a higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
So what the heck is a processed food? Essentially, a processed food is just anything that’s been deliberately altered in some way before you eat it, which could mean that it’s been frozen, dried, or artificially formulated from scratch into a microwaveable dinner.
But obviously there are significant nutritional differences between a processed food like frozen peas and a processed food like chicken nuggets.
Now, a new study looked at how processed foods were associated with someone’s overall health. And to do so, they looked specifically at what are called “ultra-processed” foods.
It’s a term that other researchers have used before to differentiate between the many shades of gray associated with processed foods. And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics similarly breaks down the variety under the umbrella of “processed” foods.
For this particular study, published recently in the BMJ, the researchers defined “ultra-processed” foods really by what they aren’t more than by what they are. They aren’t “unprocessed or minimally processed foods” (e.g. fresh veggies, rice, meat, and eggs). They aren’t “processed culinary ingredients” (such as salt, butter, or sugar). Nor are they “processed foods,” which includes foods like canned vegetables with added salt, canned fruits with added sugar, cheeses, and meats preserved only by the addition of salt.
As such, “ultra-processed” foods tend to be mass produced packaged goods, such as sodas, packaged sweet and savory snacks, instant noodles, chicken nuggets, and frozen meals. It’s still a huge group of foods, but breaking out these types of industrialized snacks and treats does make sense.
“These are foods that have a lot of added sugar, salt, and fat,” Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D., adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU Steinhardt, tells SELF. Additionally, these foods are often made from processed substances that are extracted or refined from whole foods, like oils, hydrogenated oils, fats, flours, starches, variants of sugar, and cheap parts or remnants of animal foods, Ruth Kava, Ph.D., senior nutrition fellow at the American Council on Science and Health, tells SELF. Basically, they have limited nutritional value and even when you are getting some protein (in those chicken nuggets, for example), you’re also getting a bunch of stuff you probably don’t want (e.g. sodium and maybe trans fats) and lots of calories in exchange for limited satiety.
“Most are made, advertised, and sold by large or transnational corporations and are very durable, palatable, and ready to consume,” she adds, “which is an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable whole or minimally processed foods.” They’re everywhere, they taste great, and are aggressively marketed to the public, which makes it pretty unrealistic to think you’ll always be able to turn down these foods in favor of their healthier cousins.
Of course, considering how inexpensive and freely available processed (and ultra-processed) foods are, it’s not super realistic to think that everyone can steer clear of them.
And you don’t really need to avoid them entirely. In general, experts advise that minimally processed foods should make up the majority of our diets (meaning those nutrient-rich fresh veggies, lean meats, and the like). But cooking three fresh meals from fresh ingredients every day (plus snacks, of course) is a lot to ask for basically anyone, especially those of us with full-time jobs and other obligations.
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