How do I spot ultra-processed foods?

How do I spot ultra-processed foods?

We all know that eating healthy is important for our well-being. But what does healthy eating really mean? How can we tell which foods are good for us and which ones are not?

One way to answer these questions is to look at how much processing the foods have gone through. Processing is any change that happens to a food before we eat it, such as washing, peeling, cooking, freezing, or adding ingredients. Some processing is necessary and beneficial, such as pasteurizing milk to kill harmful bacteria, or fermenting yogurt to improve its nutritional value. These are examples of minimally processed foods, which are close to their natural state and retain most of their nutrients and fiber.

However, not all processing is good for us. Some foods undergo a lot of processing that alters their original composition and adds substances that are not normally found in food. These are called ultra-processed foods, and they make up more than half of the average American’s diet. Examples of ultra-processed foods include hot dogs, cheese puffs, doughnuts, frozen pizza, white bread, cookies, microwaveable dinners, and soda.

Ultra-processed foods are designed to be tasty, convenient, and cheap, but they come at a high cost to our health. Studies have shown that people who eat more ultra-processed foods tend to consume more calories, fat, sugar, and salt, and less fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This can lead to increased risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Ultra-processed foods can also harm our gut health, which is the balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in our digestive system. A healthy gut is essential for our immune system, mood, and metabolism.

So how can we spot and avoid ultra-processed foods? Here are some tips to help you make better choices:

  • Read the food labels: A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group, which is to say, either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavors, flavor enhancers, colors, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling, and glazing agents).
  • Look for the number of ingredients: Generally speaking, the more ingredients a food has, the more processed it is. A good rule of thumb is to avoid foods that have more than three ingredients, especially if they are hard to pronounce or unfamiliar.
  • Watch out for added sugars and sweeteners: Ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of added sugar, which can contribute to weight gain, tooth decay, and inflammation. Added sugars can be hidden under different names, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, agave, molasses, and maple syrup. Artificial or “fake” sugars, such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, are also common in ultra-processed foods, and they may have negative effects on our appetite, metabolism, and gut health. Avoid foods that contain these ingredients or have health claims such as “sugar-free”, “low-sugar”, or "no added sugar".
  • Choose whole grains over refined grains: Refined grains, such as white flour, white rice, and white bread, have been stripped of their bran and germ, which contain most of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Whole grains, such as whole wheat, brown rice, and oats, retain these components and provide more health benefits. Look for foods that have whole grains as the first ingredient, and avoid foods that have enriched flour, bleached flour, or wheat flour.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, which can protect us from various diseases. They are also low in calories and fill us up faster, which can help us control our portions and weight. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and choose fresh, frozen, or canned varieties without added sugar, salt, or sauces.
  • Limit processed meats and animal fats: Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, salami, and deli meat, contain high amounts of salt, unhealthy saturated fat, nitrates and nitrites, and other chemical additives. Eating lots of processed meat is associated with increased risks for cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Animal fats, such as butter, cheese, cream, and lard, are also high in saturated fat, which can raise our blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Choose lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish, and limit your intake of processed meats and animal fats to no more than once or twice a week.
  • Cook more at home: One of the best ways to avoid ultra-processed foods is to prepare your meals using unprocessed foods or processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, vinegar, spices, and herbs. Cooking at home gives you more control over what you eat, and it can also save you money and time. You can make simple, healthy, and delicious dishes using basic ingredients, such as eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, yogurt, milk, cheese, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables. You can also use online recipes, cookbooks, or apps to get ideas and inspiration.
  • Plan and stock up: Another way to avoid ultra-processed foods is to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time, and stock up on healthy ingredients and foods. This can help you avoid impulse buying, hunger cravings, and eating out. Make a grocery list stick to it, and shop around the perimeter of the store, where you can find fresh produce, dairy, meat, and seafood. Avoid the middle aisles, where most of the ultra-processed foods are located. You can also buy foods in bulk, such as grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, and store them in airtight containers. These foods have a long shelf life and can be used to make quick and easy meals.
  • Moderate and enjoy: Finally, remember that you don’t have to eliminate all ultra-processed foods from your diet. Some ultra-processed foods can be enjoyed occasionally, in moderation, and as part of a balanced diet. The key is to be mindful of what you eat, and how much you eat. Listen to your body, and stop when you are full. Savor the flavors, textures, and aromas of your food, and appreciate the pleasure and satisfaction it brings you. Eating healthy is not only good for your body, but also for your mind and soul.


To spot and avoid ultra-processed foods, we can follow some simple tips, such as reading the food labels, looking for the number of ingredients, watching out for added sugars and sweeteners, choosing whole grains over refined grains, eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting processed meats and animal fats, cooking more at home, planning ahead and stocking up, and moderating and enjoying. By making these changes, we can improve our health, well-being, and quality of life. Remember, you are what you eat, so choose wisely and eat well. Bon appétit!

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