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What’s the Deal With Ultra-Processed Foods?

In recent years we’ve heard more and more about the perils of processed food, how damaging it is, and how it may be largely to blame for America’s obesity epidemic. But what is a processed food exactly?

Technically speaking, processed foods are any food items that are not raw or in their original form.  Processing can mean cooking, canning, pasteurizing, milling, freezing, or any number of other procedures.  By this definition, nearly all the food we consume is processed in some way. (Unless you eat entirely raw, which very few people do.)

What are ultra-processed foods?

When people use the term processed food to mean something dangerous for our bodies, what they’re referring to are ultra-processed foods.  Minimal processing by way of cooking or freezing is rarely harmful.  But when companies begin to remove certain components of food, replace them with others, and add in preservatives and other substances which lack long-term research, that’s where things start to get dangerous.

What is considered an ultra-processed food?

By the name alone, one can deduce that this category of food goes through many changes in its journey to our grocery shelves.  Companies created ultra-processed food to extend shelf-life, change texture and taste profiles, or to make foods more appealing to children. For these reasons, foods in the ultra-processed category often contain many additives and preservatives as well as unnatural food colorings. (These foods also tend to be less expensive to make since you can use a strawberry flavoring instead of using actual strawberries.) Some examples of ultra-processed foods are soda, chicken nuggets, candies, and sugary cereals. 

Are ultra-processed foods dangerous?

A study from the National Institutes of Health, the first of its kind, directly examined the impacts on a highly processed food diet vs. one with minimal processing. Participants in each group (ultra or minimally processed) ate as little or as much as they desired. They also consumed meals with the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates.

What the study found is that the group eating the ultra-processed foods were far more likely to overeat. Not only did people in this group eat quicker, but they often consumed about 500 calories more per meal than the minimally processed group. Over time, this led to weight gain in the ultra-processed group, while those in the minimally processed group lost weight.

In a nutshell, this puts on display the dangers of hyper-palatable ultra-processed foods. They can trick your mind and body into wanting more than you need. Ultra-processed foods can be harmful to your health if eaten regularly or in high quantities. For this reason, it’s important to limit intake as much as possible and opt for eating clean when you can.

How can we protect ourselves against harmful foods?

Of course, it’s simple to say, “never eat anything that’s been ultra-processed.” But I’m also a realist and understand that sometimes you find yourself in situations where you need to go with what’s available.  Life happens, and it’s important not to feel like you’ve done something terrible if it does. There are a few things, though, that you can do to inform yourself and try and avoid the damage of ultra-processed foods in your daily life.

Become a label reader

The best way to understand what you’re consuming is by reading the label on any food that comes with one.  Generally, the longer the label, the more processing has taken place. I started reading nutrition labels years ago when I first considered going vegan. While my primary goal at the time was to avoid dairy, I was shocked to find the number of ingredients I couldn’t recognize or those which I was surprised to see where I did.

When I started to read labels, I was also able to begin recognizing certain ingredients that didn’t make me feel well. If I ate something that left me feeling bloated, mentally foggy, or tired, I immediately checked the ingredient list to draw a correlation between how I felt and a specific ingredient. If you’ve ever felt this way, I highly recommend doing the same thing.

Get curious about ingredients

I’ve heard people say that you know a food is “safe” to eat if you can recognize all the ingredients on the food label.  While I agree that’s a good rule of thumb, it’s also important to simply figure out what certain ingredients are. For example, there are about 60 different names for sugar on nutrition labels, including high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, dextrose, sucrose, rice syrup, and the list goes on. If you come across an ingredient you’ve never seen or don’t know its function, give it a quick google. After you’ve done your research, if you find that the ingredient is something you’d rather not have in your body, avoid it going forward.

Ask questions

As consumers, we must ask the hard questions and understand what goes into our food. It’s increasingly apparent that our government and large corporations do not have our backs and could care less what goes on our plates, as long as it makes money. Be curious, ask if foods are safe, and request to see studies on long-term effects. The more we know, the more we can influence and encourage change by choosing where to put our dollars. And if our health becomes our primary concern, I have a feeling our money will not be going toward ultra-processed foods.

Did you have a health breakthrough by limiting ultra-processed foods? Did you learn something new and feel encouraged to start reading labels? Tell me about it in the comments.

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