Ultra-Processed Foods: What Should You Know About This New Term
Wed, April 21, 2021

Ultra-Processed Foods: What Should You Know About This New Term

 

In grocery stores, the processed foods aisle is associated with “skip this area” or the “worst of the American diet,” explained Sarah Garone of Healthline, an online medical information and health advice news site.

We know how these products are detrimental to our health and we don’t need to recall why we need to stay away from them. However, there’s a new term in town: “Ultra-processed foods.” With new research being published online, such a term is now correlated with major health risks.   

A Cohort Study On Ultra-Processed Food Intake and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease (NutriNet-Sante)

Bernard Srour and colleagues of the leading general medical journal The BMJ gathered a total of 105,159 participants consisting of 21,912 (20.8%) men and 83,247 (79.2%) women for the study. Their dietary intakes were collected using repeated 24-hour dietary records, which was designed to register their usual consumption of 3,300 food products. A median follow-up of 5.2 years was conducted to gauge the association between ultra-processed foods and overall cardiovascular disease (CVD).

They found that the main food groups contributing to ultra-processed food intake were sugary products (28%) like ice cream and pastries. This was followed by ultra-processed fruit and vegetables such as dehydrated vegetable soups and broths (18%). Beverages came in third at 16% (e.g. sodas), followed by starchy foods and breakfast cereals at 12% (e.g. re-packaged bread and industrial dough) and processed meat and fish at 11% (e.g. nuggets and processed ham).

During the follow-up, 1,409 first incident CVD events occurred, including 106 myocardial infarctions, 485 angioplasties, 74 acute coronary syndromes, 155 strokes, and 674 transient ischaemic events. Srour and colleagues found that consumption of ultra-processed food was correlated with increased risks of overall CVD. Ultra-processed foods were associated with increased risks of coronary heart diseases and cerebrovascular diseases.

Ultra-Processed Foods Consumption and Associated Sociodemographic Factors In the US

Larissa Galastri Baraldi and colleagues of life science and biomedical journal PMC found that the average US daily energy intake in 2007-2012 was 2042.5 kcal and 58.5% of calories came from ultra-processed foods. Meanwhile, unprocessed or minimally processed foods accounted for 27.5% of total energy, with processed foods contributing an additional 10% and processed culinary ingredients at 4%.

Within ultra-processed foods, most calories came from breads and frozen/shelf-stable meals (9.9% and 8.6% of total daily intake, respectively), confectionery (6.1%), (6.1%), fruit and milk drinks (5.8%), cakes, cookies and pies (5.7%), soft drinks (4.6%), salty snacks (4.1%) and breakfast cereals (3.0%). All food of animal origin represented more than half of calories of unprocessed or minimally processed foods, about 15% of total calories.

Milk accounted for 4.7% of total calories, followed by meat (4.5%), poultry (3.4%), and eggs (1.5%). Calories from processed foods came from cheese (3.7% of daily calories) and ham or other salted, smoked or canned meat or fish (1.4%). As for processed culinary ingredients, plant oils (1.5%) and table sugar (2.3%) contributed the highest calories. The overall dietary contribution of ultra-processed foods increased from 57.6% in 2007-2008 to 58.75 in 2011-2012. This trend was also found in men, adolescents, and respondents with high school education.

All sociodemographic strata showed an increase in ultra-processed food consumption. Ultra-processed food consumption rose from 60.6% in 2007-2008 to 62.6 in 2011-2012 among high income/family income-to-poverty ratio, followed by middle income 1.31-3.50, 57.7% in 2007-2008 to 60.1% in 2011-2012) and low income families (>3.50, 56.1% in 2007-2008 to 57.5% in 2011-2012). Ultra-processed food consumption was inversely associated with both age and income levels. Consumption did not vary according to sex either, Baraldi and colleagues noted.

What Is Ultra-Processed Food?

According to British news channel BBC, ultra-processed foods refer to products that usually contain ingredients that you would not add when cooking homemade dishes. It can be tricky to find out which foods are ultra-processed. To give you an example, bread is processed when it is made from wheat, flour, water, salt, and water, but it is ultra-processed when emulsifiers or colorings are added.

Plain oats, corn flakes, and shredded wheat are considered as minimally processed foods, but they become ultra-processed when sugar, flavorings, and colorings are added.  The aforementioned examples align with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada’s definition of ultra-processed foods.

It is said that ultra-processed foods contain many added ingredients and “are highly manipulated,” quoted Cara Rosenbloom, RD, of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Ultra-processed foods also undergo many processes such as extrusion, milling, etc.

In the UK, for instance, the most commonly eaten ultra-processed foods are industrialized bread (11%), pre-packaged meals (7.7%), breakfast cereals (4.4%), and sausages and other reconstituted meat products (3.8%). Other key examples include ice cream and chips, mentioned Rosenbloom, RD.

In contrast, unprocessed or minimally processed foods may have been crushed, boiled, roasted, etc. but they don’t contain added ingredients. Examples include fruit, vegetables, nuts, natural animal products like eggs, grains, and more.  Processed foods are made using oil, salt, and sugar and are packaged. Canned tuna, beans, simple bread, tofu, and salted and sugared nuts are common examples of processed foods.

How Can I Cut Back on Ultra-Processed Foods?

1.     Cook At Home

In the last seven decades, one major change in our dietary patterns has been the decline of homecooked meals as well as the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods. Try to cook at home more often without using ultra-processed ingredients, which helps reduce the amount of the said foods you consume. Restaurant meals are known for tweaking their recipes to “achieve a certain flavor, rather than a nutrition profile,” stated Garone.

If you can’t help dining at a restaurant, opt to dine out on better choices. There are restaurants that serve fresh and healthy meals. Try to fill half your plate with greens and choose meals that are baked, grilled, poached, and stir-fried.  

2.     Swap Ultra-Processed Foods With Their Home Version Counterparts

Interested in reducing your ultra-processed food intake? For example, you can swap artificially flavored cheese crackers with whole-grain crackers and cheese slices. Energy drinks can be switched with freshly-squeezed orange juice. 

3.     Know the Source of the Product

Apples grow on trees and steak comes from cows. What if you have trouble finding out the origins of your food because it has been highly manipulated? Chances are, that’s an ultra-processed food.  

4.     Avoid Jumping On the “Healthy” Hype Train

Ultra-processed foods are often marketed as “organic,” “heathy,” and “natural.” These may describe the original ingredients but they don’t refer to how the food was actually made. Hence, consider eating fresh, unprocessed, whole food as it has health benefits including reduced risk for high blood pressure.


Ultra-processed foods make us more susceptible to developing cardiovascular disease, according to Srour and colleagues. We should opt for more unprocessed options when dining out or making our own meals at home.