What is an ultra-processed food? We eat a lot of different foods. Some of these foods are fresh from the produce section while some may be processed. Ultra-processed foods are a particular category of processed foods. These foods tend to be sugary, high in saturated fat, and unhealthy for us. What are some of the ultra-processed foods we may eat and what alternatives do we have for them? Let’s take a look at what these foods are and how to avoid them.
Ultra-processed foods get the name from NOVA. NOVA is a food classification system created and used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Pan American Health Organization for use in public health and research. Ultra-processed foods tend to be foods that are packaged, branded, ready to eat, fast or convenient. Ultra-processed foods lead to obesity, diabetes, and other health issues. The term “ultra-processed” is a catch all for any food created from industrial ingredients and the original source of the food is no longer intact. An example of this is soda. Soda takes water, adds sugar and flavoring and turns it into a completely different product high in sugar and calories.
There are three groups of processed foods, ranging from items we add to our food to improve taste in Group 2 (such as salt, salted butter, vinegar, and oil), to foods that are processed in Group 3, such as canned foods. But it’s Group 4 we want to pay most attention to and try to avoid. Group 4 foods are only created through an industrial process, where things such as high fructose corn syrup, whey, dyes, and non-sugar sweeteners are added. These are foods that are ready to eat and may only require simple heating. If it’s pre-prepared and in the frozen food aisle, it’s probably a Group 4 ultra-processed food. Ultra-processed foods lack the mineral and nutrients we need to be healthy and are unbalanced in their health composition. They may even leave you hungrier and desiring more of the unhealthy foods, instead of eating the healthier options.
What kind of foods do we want to have in our diet? The answer lies in NOVA’s Group 1, also known as unprocessed foods or foods with minimal processing. These are the foods we often hear as being healthy: fresh, squeezed, chill, or dried fruits, grains like brown or white rice, meat, seafood, and poultry, and tea, coffee, and water. These foods may also contain additives to help preserve the properties of the food, such as anti-oxidants. Think of these foods as the foods we often find in the parameter of grocery stores. Eaten alone or combined together into new plates, group 1 foods have the nutrients and minerals your body needs to be efficient and healthy. NOVA recommends a golden rule: Stick to natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed food.
The main takeaway with ultra-processed foods is to remember that foods that are not in their original form and intact, then these foods can be a risk to your health. Unprocessed foods are healthy for your body and if you are concerned with your health, try removing ultra-processed foods from your diet as much as you can. Stick with foods that fall into Group 1, such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. If you’re at the grocery store, think of these items as the food on the perimeter of the store. By keeping these as a priority, you can maintain a healthy diet and cut out sugary foods.