Foods low in nutrition and high in additives and preservatives are known as ultra-processed foods. Though this category includes some of our favorite comfort foods, overindulging may have a significant impact on your health.
There’s something comforting about digging into our favorite junk food snacks. They taste good, and they make us feel good at the moment, but studies have shown that overindulging in these ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to our health in the long term.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
When it comes to food processing, there are three levels of classification: whole foods, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods. Whole foods are plant or animal matter with no mechanical or chemical processing involved in their preparation. This includes items such as raw fruits or vegetables, whole grains, unroasted nuts, unprocessed cuts of meat, and natural dairy products such as eggs or yogurt. These whole foods typically include all of the original nutritional value of the plant or animal from which they came.
In contrast, processed foods have undergone some form of preparation, usually traditional techniques such as canning, between being harvested and reaching your plate. Juices, canned items, fresh baked goods like bread, and direct products of whole foods like flour can be categorized here. These foods retain most of their nutrients, but some benefits are typically lost in the act of processing. They may also include additives to enhance flavor or to aid in preservation.
Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are often unrecognizable as the items from which they came. Many of these types of foods only contain portions or extracts of the original whole foods and often include chemical additives that affect flavor, texture, color, and other cosmetic features to make the food more visually and olfactorily appealing. Many of these foods are among the most popular lining grocery store shelves, including frozen goods, junk food such as candy and chips, processed meats, flavored sodas, commercial bread products, and premixed items like cake mixes and meal kits. Although these foods often taste good – they’re engineered to – they bear little to none of their original nutritional value, and overindulging can have serious effects on your health.
What Happens When We Eat Them?
These Ultra-Processed foods have a variety of effects on our health. In addition to often being fattening due to their sugar and preservative content, they also can cause inflammation, contribute to the risk of cancer, and negatively affect mental health.
Ultra-processed foods are often much higher in calories than processed or whole foods. In a study comparing an ultra-processed diet to a processed one, participants on the former had to consume many more calories per day to reach the same nutrition and appetite satisfaction as those on the latter diet. A diet heavy in ultra-processed foods may also increase appetite, causing consumers to eat more than they normally would. Additionally, the sugars and preservatives often present in these foods are “empty” calories that are often quickly converted into fat.
Research suggests that the chemicals and additives used to process foods can contribute to an inflammatory response in the body that triggers system-wide inflammation, which may in turn lead to other health conditions, including cardiovascular problems, tissue damage, chronic health problems, and even cancer.
Studies have linked diets high in ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of cancer. A study published in June 2022 in the British Medical Journal demonstrated an increased risk of colorectal cancer by 72% in men with diets high in ultra-processed foods. The study connected this increased risk to some of the additives in the foods known to cause inflammation, along with the absence of the naturally occurring nutrients in whole foods that are shown to reduce inflammation and prevent colorectal cancers.
A study published in the Public Health Nutrition journal demonstrated a link between an ultra-processed diet and higher rates of depression and anxiety. The researchers theorized that this might have to do with shortages of essential nutrients and high levels of additives.
Why Are They So Popular?
There are a number of reasons companies produce ultra-processed foods. Processing foods and adding preservatives can make them last longer so they don’t spoil on the shelves before they’re sold. This also appeals to shoppers who like to buy groceries in bulk because the foods won’t go bad in the time between their shopping days. These foods are typically cheaper than whole foods, too, making them common dietary staples for people on a tight budget.
The simplest reason for the popularity of ultra-processed foods, however, is that they taste good. The chemical flavor enhancers and high levels of sugars and fats have been shown to make ultra-processed foods more desirable, even to the point of addiction. The more you eat, the more you want.
How Much Is Too Much?
You don’t have to cut ultra-processed foods out of your diet entirely. The occasional snack or quick meal likely won’t cause too many problems. It’s important not to let these foods overwhelm your diet, though. It can be tempting to reach for something microwaveable at the end of a long day, but the more you eat minimally processed foods or ingredients, the better off you will be.
Ultra-processed foods may taste good, but they offer far less nutrition than their less-processed counterparts. Studies show eating more whole foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables, is better for your long-term health.
How Do I Avoid Them?
If you’re not sure how processed a food product is, pay close attention to the packaging. There are a few giveaways that indicate an ultra-processed food product. A long list of unrecognizable ingredients is the first thing to look for. Ingredient lists are organized by how much of each ingredient is present in the food, so if items at the top of the list aren’t things you can buy from the produce section or butcher’s counter, beware.
When examining nutrition labels, also watch out for things that are high in fats, carbohydrates, or calories but list little to no vitamins, fiber, or other nutrients. When in doubt, if a food item is suspiciously cheap, requires little to no preparation, or is marketed as a convenience food, it’s probably ultra-processed.
Remember that all things are okay in moderation. Ultimately, though, the amount of these foods you can eat before they affect your health will be different for every person. If you’re concerned, talk to a qualified nutritionist to determine the optimum diet for your health needs.
Many of the effects of ultra-processed food would remain unknown today without the efforts of those participating in medical research. If you like learning about clinical studies or think you might even like to participate in one, follow us on Facebook or Sign up for StudyPages for information and opportunities.