(What is ultra-processed food and why you should avoid it)

Processed foods, with their varying degrees of refinement and alteration, are essential components of contemporary diets. Yet, within the realm of processed foods, a distinct category emerges—ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Let’s elucidate the differences between UPFs and processed foods and delineate the compelling reasons for limiting UPF consumption while recognizing the practical challenges of completely eliminating processed foods from our lives.

Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs): A Dietary Hazard

Characteristics of UPFs:

  • Complex Formulation: UPFs are intricately formulated concoctions often comprising numerous additives, preservatives, and minimal whole ingredients.
  • Low Nutritional Value: They typically offer poor nutritional profiles, being high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial components.
  • Palatability Engineering: UPFs are engineered for hyper-palatability, often leading to overconsumption.

Detrimental Effects of UPF Consumption:

  • Obesity Risk: Several studies, including a comprehensive analysis in The Lancet (Monteiro et al., 2013), have linked UPF consumption to an increased risk of obesity.
  • Chronic Diseases: Regular UPF consumption is associated with a heightened risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes (Monteiro et al., 2013).

 Processed Foods: Navigating the Spectrum

 Characteristics of Processed Foods:

  • Minimal Alterations: Processed foods undergo some form of alteration, such as cooking, freezing, or canning, without the extensive manipulation seen in UPFs.
  • Nutritional Variation: Processed foods can retain their nutritional value if processed thoughtfully.
  • Examples: Frozen vegetables, canned beans, and whole-grain bread exemplify minimally processed foods.

 Why Limit Ultra-Processed Foods?

  • Nutrient Void: UPFs often lack essential nutrients, leading to empty calorie consumption.
  • Overeating Risk: Hyper-palatability can disrupt natural hunger cues, leading to overconsumption.
  • Long-Term Health Consequences: Chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are associated with excessive UPF intake.

 Why Can't We Eliminate Processed Foods?

  • Modern Lifestyle: Convenience is integral to contemporary living, necessitating some level of food processing.
  • Food Safety: Processing can extend the shelf life of perishable items, reducing food waste. Nutrient Accessibility: Processed foods can provide essential nutrients in a convenient form.

In the intricate web of modern nutrition, discerning between ultra-processed and processed foods is vital. While avoiding ultra-processed foods is prudent for health, the reality of contemporary living necessitates a pragmatic approach. Processed foods, when chosen judiciously, can contribute to a balanced diet. Reducing ultra-processed food intake and embracing a whole-food-based diet is a scientifically sound strategy for improving nutritional outcomes and overall health.


  1. Fardet, A. (2018). Minimally processed foods are more satiating and less hyperglycemic than ultra-processed foods: a preliminary study with 98 ready-to-eat foods. Food & Function, 9(10), 5116-5124.
  2. Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., ... & Božović, A. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell Metabolism, 30(1), 67-77.
  3. Ludwig, D. S., & Willett, W. C. (2019). Three daily servings of reduced-fat milk: an evidence-based recommendation? JAMA Pediatrics, 173(11), 1015-1016.
  4. Martínez Steele, E., Rauber, F., Monteiro, C. A., & Levy, R. B. (2019). Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries. Public Health Nutrition, 22(3), 407-414.
  5. Monteiro, C. A., Moubarac, J. C., Cannon, G., Ng, S. W., & Popkin, B. (2013). Ultra-processed products are becoming dominant in the global food system. The Lancet, 381(9873), 12-17.
  6. Moubarac, J. C., Parra, D. C., Cannon, G., & Monteiro, C. A. (2014). Food classification systems based on food processing: significance and implications for policies and actions: a systematic literature review and assessment. Current Obesity Reports, 3(2), 256-272.
  7. Poti, J. M., Braga, B., Qin, B., Lê, K. A., & Jebb, S. A. (2017). Ultra-processed food intake and obesity: what really matters for health—processing or nutrient content? Current Obesity Reports, 6(3), 420-431.
  8. Vandevijvere, S., Monteiro, C., Krebs-Smith, S. M., Lee, A., Swinburn, B., & Kelly, B. (2019). Monitoring and benchmarking population diet quality globally: a step-wise approach. Obesity Reviews, 20(S2), 15-27.


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