A processed food is simply one that has been altered from its original form. Learn how to tell the difference and food swaps you can make.

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When it comes to the grocery store, the aisles of processed foods are almost synonymous with “skip this area.” And because you’ve probably heard that you should limit consumption of these foods, there’s likely no need for a refresher on why it’s recommended.

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.

By definition, a processed food is simply one that has 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 foods we eat are technically processed.

But basic preparation and preservation techniques certainly don’t turn wholesome foods (such as whole grains and 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 suggests ultra-processed foods specifically 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 is being asked.

The idea of ultra-processed foods was first introduced by a Brazilian nutrition researcher, Carlos A. Monteiro, in a 2009 paper. Then in 2010, Monteiro and a team of Brazilian researchers went a step further and broke processed foods into a classification system, which is now called NOVA.

On one end of the NOVA spectrum are unprocessed or minimally processed items such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs — foods you might see included on the Whole30 diet or Mediterranean diet.

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

Since that 2018 study, other 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.

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

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

The primary stage involves basic preparations such as removal of inedible parts of the grain, cleaning cereals, and parboiling.

Secondary processing includes baking, freezing, fermentation, and frying. The third stage turns the grains into edible products.

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 that 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, all these “extras” are likely to increase our risk for health conditions. Excess sugar, salt, and oils in the diet are known to play a role in the development of numerous health conditions.

Understanding how foods become ultra-processed can be a helpful step in remembering to minimize your intake of those foods. Diligent label reading can also help you choose products with fewer ingredients.

Cooking at home goes a long way toward reducing consumption of ultra-processed foods. Restaurants (especially fast-food restaurants) are notorious for tinkering with their recipes to achieve a certain flavor, which could involve using less-than-nutrient-dense ingredients.

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

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

Ultra-processedProcessedHome version
sweetened breakfast cerealsplain bran cerealoatmeal made with rolled oats and sweetened with honey
sodaartificially flavored sparkling watercarbonated water with a splash of fruit juice or fruit slices
flavored potato chipsplain tortilla chipsDIY pita chips
white breadwhole wheat bread with minimal ingredientshomemade whole wheat bread
fried chickendeli rotisserie chickenroast chicken from scratch
flavored candy bar with long ingredient listsimple candy bar with short ingredient listdark chocolate squares
frozen, blended coffee drinkstore-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 (check ingredients on label) and cheese slices

Thanks to years of exposure to diet culture, we have already read about which foods have been socially labeled as “bad” and “good.” But it’s really not that simple. Attaching positive or negative labels to foods hasn’t necessarily changed what we consume.

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. Focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, or canned.

Read labels and add foods to your shopping cart that have ingredient lists of things you recognize. Limit items that are in high in added sugar and sodium.

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than about 9 teaspoons of added sugar, or 36 grams, per day and women aim for no more than 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, per day.

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 to do a check-in with your mind and gut before putting something in 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.