How Ultra-Processed Foods Hurt Your Health


“Ultra-processed foods” now make up more than half the calories consumed by Americans, and account for 90 percent of added sugar, according to a recent survey. Of course, it’s not just the sugar you should be worried about. They also come packaged with other ingredients that have a negative impact on your health—things like too much salt, unhealthy fats, and questionable chemicals. From soft drinks to packaged snacks to animal-shaped nuggets of meat, it’s a jungle out there. The good news: you can easily learn how to spot fake food, and turn your diet around for the better!  

What’s an Ultra-Processed Food?

Think neon candy, day-glow cheese puffs, black soft drinks, and perfectly formed tubes of meat. These kinds of products are cheap and easy to mass produce, but they’re created through extensive processing. They’re pumped full of sugar, salt, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors, to make them taste and look good. However, you shouldn’t let these foods fool you into believing they’re doing your body any good.

What Makes Ultra-Processed Foods So Bad?

It’s not hard to imagine why these foods aren’t good for you. Drinking too many sugary beverages is like quickly pouring liquid candy down your throat. Your body doesn’t register these calories in the same way it would solid calories, making it easy to overconsume, and increasing your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and gout.

Sodium is another concern. More than 75 percent of the salt in the average American diet comes from processed foods, and bread and cold cuts are the top two offenders. Salt makes your body hang onto excess water, which can stress out your heart, and lead to high blood pressure.

In addition to sugar and salt, lurking in donuts, cookies, and crackers are trans fats, labelled as “partially hydrogenated oils,” which raise blood cholesterol and can lead to heart disease and diabetes. And finally, food additives like nitrates and nitrites, found in processed meat, and potassium bromate, found in bread and crackers, have been linked to cancer. All in all, ultra-processed foods are a recipe for health disaster.  

Spot an Ultra-Processed Food with this Checklist

Ask yourself these simple questions to suss out whether the food is worth eating or not:

  • Does the food contain chemical ingredients you don’t keep in your kitchen at home?
  • Is it high in sugar, salt, or saturated fat? (Is the daily value for these nutrients above 10 percent?)
  • Does it contain food additives like artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners?
  • Are there unpronounceable preservatives and chemicals fit for a chemistry class, which ensure the food stays “fresh” for a really … really … long time?

Lots of check marks? Chances are you’ve got your hands on an ultra-processed food that’s calorie dense and nutrient poor. Also, beware of products masquerading as “healthy” foods, which spin inflated health claims, but fall short in the nutrition department, like certain protein bars, breakfast cereals, veggie burgers, and gluten-free products.

Healthy Alternatives to Ultra-Processed Foods

Instead of grabbing something from a box or a bag, focus on real foods, found in nature and prepared by humans, not factories. If you could pick it from a tree, pull it from the ground, or spot it roaming in a field, it’s likely a much healthier choice. And if you need suggestions for healthier choices, here’s a cheat sheet with a few examples:

Ultra-processed foods Better options for you
Cheese-flavored puffs Homemade popcorn
Multi-colored candy Mixed berries
Soft drinks Sparkling water with sliced lemon, cucumber, or mint
Store-bought frosting Whipped part-skim ricotta cheese with honey and pure vanilla extract
White bread Sprouted-grain bread
Chocolate-flavored drinks and mixes Cacao powder and low-fat milk
Hot dogs Chicken dogs, made with real boneless, skinless chicken meat, water, and seasoning, such as uncured natural chicken hot dogs
Sweetened, fruit-flavored breakfast cereal Oatmeal with fresh fruit

Ultra-Processed Foods Aren’t Good, but Not All Processing Is Bad

Processing isn’t always a bad thing. It can help lock in nutrients and preserve freshness (who doesn’t want to be able to reach for a bag of frozen peas as emergency greens?), enhance nutrients (canned tomatoes are a great source of lycopene), and just make your life that little bit easier (it’s quite nice not having to squeeze out your own olive oil). Almost all food is processed in some way, and gently or minimally processed foods can be just as nutritious, sometimes even more so than their fresh counterpartstake frozen fruit and veg. Fermentation, such as enhancing milk by adding probioticsis another great example of light processing. The key is to stick with foods as close to their natural state as possible, and steer clear of anything that looks out of this world.

2 Comments   Join the Conversation

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi, Tracy. This article was certainly something I was interested in reading. I’m wondering if you could clue me in to how bad stevia is as a sweetener. I know it comes from a plant, but does the actual processing reduce its quality as a sugar substitute? Put another way, is it bad for me?

  • Hello, Tracy. Great article! Question, my doctor expressed her concerned with my weight, she stated that I needed to lose 22 pounds. I’m given myself 5-6 months lose weight because I want to do it the healthy way. I purchased a fitbit and I started walking twice sometimes three times a day. I ‘m getting anywhere to 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day. On the weekend I just started to slow jog for about 30 minutes, then I just walk. I feel like my weight is not coming off. I still drink my daily diet coke, is this bad for me, the sugar substitute?

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