- Most Americans say they are unfamiliar with what qualifies as an ultra-processed food.
- The term “ultra-processed” is still relatively new, and researchers have only just started looking at whether highly-processed foods can cause harm.
- Experts recommend limiting ultra-processed foods—more commonly known as “junk food”—as much as possible.
You’ve likely heard of processed foods—but could you identify an ultra-processed food? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is no.
According to a September 2022 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), about 76% of Americans are unfamiliar with what qualifies as an ultra-processed food. More specifically, 66% of people said they’d never heard the term “ultra-processed,” while 10% said they were unsure.
The survey was conducted among 1,000 adults ages 18 and over to determine consumer perceptions and purchasing habits around processed foods. According to experts in the food and nutrition industry, its results are not surprising, as the concept of ultra-processed foods is relatively new.
“Most Americans don’t know precisely which foods count as ultra-processed because researchers have only recently started looking at whether highly-processed foods can cause harm,” Bonnie Liebman, MS, Director of Nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who was not affiliated with the survey, told Health. Liebman said that the term “ultra-processed foods” was first introduced around 2010, when a Brazilian study proposed classifying foods by their level of processing.
Since that time, the concept has gained traction (and clarity) as a growing body of research has defined ultra-processed foods and their potential to negatively impact health. The IFIC survey not only sheds light on how little consumers know about ultra-processed foods but may also be useful as the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee begins to consider its messaging around processed foods.
So, what exactly are ultra-processed foods—and should you keep them off your plate?
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
Aside from an orange picked straight off a tree or a spinach leaf plucked from your backyard garden, the vast majority of foods we consume are processed in some way. This isn’t always a bad thing. Processing foods might simply involve heating, canning, cleaning, drying, or packaging them for shipment. Methods like these preserve foods for safe longer-term consumption.
Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, take processing to the next level—and not in a good way. Though there’s no one precise definition of ultra-processed foods, the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, has developed a processing classification system called NOVA to provide some clarity.
“NOVA classifies food as Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4,” registered dietitian Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, an award-winning nutrition expert and best-selling author of The Family Immunity Cookbook, told Health. “Group 4 is ‘ultra-processed food’ and is defined as ‘industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).’”
In simpler terms: “We used to refer to ultra-processed food as junk food,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It—Taking You from Label to Table. “Ultra-processed foods might be candy, soda, pastries, hot dogs, and other food we should be consuming less often—basically foods that contain a lot of sugar, salt, saturated fat, preservatives, and so on.”
Though you might associate ultra-processed foods with your local convenience store or gas station, according to Taub-Dix, they can be found anywhere. Even high-end grocery stores and health food stores may sell ultra-processed foods.
Besides containing concerning nutrients, ultra-processed foods also often harbor numerous additives. “A few ingredients commonly used in ultra-processed foods include salt, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, mono- and diglycerides, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, color additives, modified food starches, and others,” said Bryan Quoc Le, PhD, food scientist, food industry consultant, and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered.
Health Effects of Ultra-Processed Foods
Researchers have long known that diets high in some types of processed foods could lead to health problems. But narrowing the focus on ultra-processed foods has shown that far-from-nature items could affect health more negatively than simply processed foods like canned beans or whole grain cereals.
A 2022 study in BMJ on almost 23,000 subjects, for example, found that people who ate large quantities of ultra-processed foods had higher risk of heart disease and death overall. Other research, also published in 2022 in BMJ, linked eating more ultra-processed food to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
Research has shown that people gained more weight on a diet high in very processed foods. Higher consumption of those foods is also correlated with greater levels of anxiety and depression.
Still, more information is needed to tease apart whether specific formulations of foods actually cause health conditions—and if so, what it is about those foods that’s promoting disease.
“Studies have reported a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers in people who eat more ultra-processed foods,” Liebman said. “However, those studies can’t tell us whether ultra-processed foods cause illness, or whether something else about people who eat diets high in ultra-processed foods is to blame.”
How to Navigate Ultra-Processed Foods
Keeping ultra-processed foods out of your diet entirely might sound like a worthy goal, but that may not always be realistic or even warranted. “Ultra-processed foods are more like ‘sometimes’ foods, but let’s face it, many are also tasty and fun to eat, so I don’t think any food, unless you have a serious medical condition or allergy, needs to be eliminated from one’s diet,” Taub-Dix said.
Still, she and other experts encourage limiting ultra-processed foods when possible. To keep them to a minimum, the first step is identifying them. The best place to begin: the nutrition facts label.
“The consumer should be looking at the nutrition facts panel to determine if the food provides nutrition and determine the best fit for their diet,” Amidor said. “For example, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes are not your nutrient-dense choices, but a food like cereal that is typically fortified with many nutrients (especially those that Americans don’t get enough of) and are widely consumed with cow’s milk and fruit—that is a food I would not recommend avoiding and actually encourage consuming.”
Reading ingredient lists is another simple way to cut through confusion and make healthier choices. “The food label is the best weapon we have to fight against getting ingredients in our food that we really don’t want. Food labels tell a story of what goes into each package,” said Taub-Dix. Sugars, sodium, additives, and dyes are all hallmarks of ultra-processed foods. Look for these ingredients as red flags to avoid.
Finally, you can’t go wrong choosing fresh, whole foods as often as time and budget permit. “People should aim for a diet rich in unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts, rather than junk foods like chips, cookies, donuts, and sugary drinks,” Liebman said. “A good rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with fresh fruit or vegetables, leave a quarter of your plate for healthy protein foods, and fill another quarter with whole grains.”