When it comes to the grocery store, the aisle of processed foods is almost synonymous with “skip this area” or the “worst of the American diet.” And since we’ve heard about how bad they are for our bodies for many years, there’s no need for a refresher on why it’s recommended to stay away from them.

Lately, however, you may have seen a new term tossed around in nutrition news: “ultra-processed foods.”

This category of food is making headlines as recent research connects it with major health risks.

So, what’s the difference between ‘regular’ processed foods and ‘ultra’ processed foods? And what does that mean for your health?

By definition, a processed food is simply one that’s been altered from its original form. The International Food Information Council defines processing as “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready for us to eat.”

Heating, pasteurizing, canning, and drying are all considered forms of processing. Some definitions even include refrigeration in the mix.

So, unless we’re plucking apples directly off a tree or drinking milk straight from a cow, the vast majority of the foods we eat are technically processed.

But basic preparation and preservation techniques certainly don’t turn wholesome foods (like whole grains or frozen vegetables) into “junk.” Just because something has gone through a process doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy to eat.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to rethink our mentality about processed foods and direct more attention to so-called ultra-processed foods. After all, timely research reveals it’s specifically ultra-processed foods that can cause health problems, including increased risk of obesity and cancer.

But the parameters around ultra-processed foods are less clear than those around processed food in general. Exactly what this term refers to depends on who’s asked.

The idea of ultra-processed foods was first introduced by a team of Brazilian nutrition researchers in a 2016 study that linked the foods with cancer. This research broke processed foods into a classification system called NOVA.

On one end of the NOVA spectrum are unprocessed or minimally processed items, like fresh fruits, vegetables, or eggs. Foods you might consider seeing on the Whole30 diet or a clean eating program.

On the other end are ultra-processed foods, defined as “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.”

Since that 2016 study, different studies on the effects of ultra-processed foods have used different definitions of them. It seems there’s no single accepted set of criteria.

“I would love to say there is consensus on the definitions of processed and ultra-processed foods,” says Carrie Gabriel, a registered dietitian nutritionist, “but I’ve seen plenty of arguments on what qualifies as one or the other.”

In essence, pinning down the exact nature of ultra-processed food is still, well, in process.

Despite this problem of semantics, some common features shape the concept of ultra-processed foods

By most definitions, the changes that turn a “regular” processed food to an ultra-processed one occur in the final stage of food production, called tertiary processing.

Typical food processing happens in up to three stages. Understanding these three stages can help you independently determine how processed a food is and what your standards are.

Primary and secondary stages involve basic preparations that take food from its ground-level form to being edible.

Harvesting grain, shelling nuts, and slaughtering chickens are all considered primary processing. Baking, freezing, and canning are secondary forms that make a slightly more complex finished product.

It’s at the third (or tertiary) level of processing where flavor injections, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives begin to turn foods into the ultra-processed variety.

3 stages of food processing

  1. First stage of “processing” involves making sure the food is edible. Harvesting grain, shelling nuts, and slaughtering chickens are all considered primary processing. Foods that have only gone through this stage of processing are often still considered “whole” foods.
  2. Secondary steps make a more complex, finished, “processed” product. This includes cooking, freezing, and canning.
  3. Ultra-processed foods go through a third stage, when manufacturers inject flavors, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives.

In short, ultra-processed foods are probably what many of us already think of simply as processed foods — those shiny, packaged, nothing-to-do-with-nature products found at fast-food restaurants and gas station mini-marts.

Like the NOVA classification system, many authorities agree a long list of ingredients is a primary indicator of an ultra-processed food. A 2016 study examining how common they are in the American diet called them formulations that “besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations.”

The study authors went on to include anything that used additives to imitate the qualities of “real” foods.

“I like the definition as being the addition of sugar, salt, oils, and fats to aid in flavor and preservation,” Gabriel says.

Though they may add flavor and texture, it’s all these “extras” that are the likely culprit of endangering our health. Excess sugar, salt, and oils in the diet are known to play a role in the development of numerous health conditions.

Avoiding processed foods is already something we know

But understanding how foods get ultra-processed can be a helpful step in remembering to minimize our intake of them. Diligent label reading can also help you choose products with fewer ingredients.

Cooking at home also goes a long way toward reducing the amount of ultra-processed you consume. Restaurant meals (especially fast food) are notorious for tinkering with their recipes to achieve a certain flavor, rather than a nutrition profile.

However, there are cases when getting unprocessed, whole food isn’t that simple, whether it’s an issue of affordability, availability, or accessibility.

Still, there are also small changes you can make to tweak the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet. Here’s a chart to help you make smart swaps:

Ultra-processedProcessedHome version
sweetened breakfast cerealsplain bran cerealoatmeal made with rolled oats and sweetened with honey
Cokeartificially flavored sparkling waterSodaStream
flavored potato chipsplain tortilla chipsDIY pita chips
white breadwhole-wheat bread with minimal ingredientshomemade bread
fried chickendeli rotisserie chickenroast chicken from scratch
flavored candy bar with long ingredient listsimple candy bar with short ingredient listdark chocolate squares
Frappuccinostore-bought cold brewdrip coffee
mashed potato flakesfrozen potatoesfresh, whole potatoes
energy drinksweetened fruit juicefresh-squeezed orange juice
flavored granola bars with added sugar and preservativesgranola bars with minimal additivesDIY granola
artificially flavored cheese crackersnaturally flavored crackerswhole-grain crackers and cheese slices
 

Thanks to years of diet culture, we know what foods have been socially labeled as “bad” and “good.” But it’s really not that simple. Food is more than fuel and filler; it’s a relationship. So, the next time you head to the grocery store, remember that not all “processed” foods are necessarily bad for you.

And ultra-processed foods? When you already know they’re not the best for you, it’s going to be about quantity, not quality, and comfort over health. The best step is doing a check-in with your mind and gut before putting it into your shopping cart.


Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.