Q. I have been told to avoid “ultraprocessed” foods. What exactly does this mean, and what are ultraprocessed foods’ health effects?
A. Ultraprocessed foods include a variety of categories including soft drinks and sweet or savory packaged snacks. These foods typically are defined as those consisting mostly of additives and substances derived from foods that have undergone several types of processing. Recent evidence links ultraprocessed foods to poor diet quality, increased risk of disease, and negative health outcomes.
The term “ultraprocessed” was coined 10 years ago by Carlos Monteiro, MD, PhD, who said a food’s degree of processing — not just its nutrient profile — should be examined when determining its healthfulness. Generally speaking, it’s possible to categorize foods into four different processing levels.
Level 1: unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, fresh meat and milk.
Level 2: Processed culinary ingredients such as oils, pastas, flours, salt and sugar.
Level 3: Processed foods such as seasoned nuts, cured or smoked meats, cheese, bread, canned fruits and vegetables.
Level 4: Ultraprocessed food and drink such as candy, hot dogs, soft drinks, and instant, powdered, and prepared foods.
As for the research, data from 2000-2012 found that 61% of calories consumed in the U.S. were from ultraprocessed food, 23% from minimally processed food, and 16% from processed ingredients.
These statistics are likely skewed even more today. This is alarming because several studies show that people who consume the most ultraprocessed foods also consume the highest amount of carbohydrates, sugar, total fat and saturated fat while their intake of fiber, protein, and many common micronutrients is significantly less than their peers.
In terms of health consequences, ultraprocessed food consumption has shown a link to obesity, higher fasting glucose, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.
So what does this mean for you? It’s unrealistic to assume that ultraprocessed foods will completely disappear from the diet, but finding ways to include more minimally-processed foods like vegetables, fruits, raw meat, and dairy would be advantageous to both your short-term and long-term health.