Ultra-processed foods are modified multiple times before consumption and contain high amounts of added sugar, saturated fats, salts, and other additives, like thickeners, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and artificial colors and flavors.

Because of all the changes these foods undergo, the nutrients they once contained are removed or destroyed, leaving them with little nutritional value. A diet high in ultra-processed food can have many negative effects on your health. Knowing the risks of eating these foods and what makes them so harmful can help you make smarter decisions about your diet.

Definition of ultra-processed foods

Food processing is classified by the NOVA classification system. According to this system, processed foods are modified to exchange texture or flavor and have added salt, sugar, and/or fat. Ultra-processed foods take this a step further, adding thickeners, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and artificial colors and flavors. They have multiple processing steps and are often inexpensively mass-produced. Some speculate that these foods are designed to increase cravings, so people eat the excess.

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Common examples of ultra-processed foods

Common examples of ultra-processed food include:

  • packaged snacks
  • carbonated drinks
  • candy
  • ice cream
  • margarine
  • cookies, cakes
  • cake mixes
  • breakfast cereals
  • prepared or frozen pies, pasta, and pizzas.

Other examples include chicken nuggets, fish sticks, hot dogs, sausages, burgers, instant meals (including noodles, soups, and desserts) and mass-produced packaged buns and breads.

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Statistical overview

Research shows that more than half of the food consumed in high-income countries, including the United States, the UK, and Canada, are ultra-processed. The United States eats the most, with ultra-processed foods making up 58 percent of daily energy intake.

In middle-income countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Chile, they make up between a third and a fifth of total daily caloric intake. This research also shows that these figures are rising. In high-income countries, sales of ultra-processed foods are growing by about one percent a year; in middle-income countries, sales are growing by as much as ten percent a year.

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Demographic trends

Generally, the consumption of ultra-processed foods decreases with age and income level.

In the United States, those with a college education consumed the least amount of ultra-processed foods and adolescents, African Americans, and Caucasians ate the most.

Research also shows that age and income levels have an inverse relationship with ultra-processed food consumption, but consumption does not vary according to sex.

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Cardiovascular and metabolic disorders

Research has uncovered convincing evidence that diets high in ultra-processed food are associated with significantly higher risks of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders.

Specifically, a high intake of ultra-processed food was associated with a 12 percent greater risk of diabetes and a 50 percent increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

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Cancer and increased mortality rates

Diets high in ultra-processed food also lead to increased cancer incidence and mortality rates. Research shows that for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food, the overall incidence of cancer increases by two percent and ovarian cancer by an astounding 19 percent. A 10 percent increase also affected cancer mortality rates, leading to a six percent increase in mortality for all cancers, 16 percent for breast cancer, and 30 percent for ovarian cancer.

Researchers believe this may be because ultra-processed foods are nutritionally inferior and can contribute to other risk factors, like obesity. Some studies also show that exposure to additives and contaminants may contribute to cancer and cancer mortality.

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Mental health impacts

Ultra-processed foods can also affect mental health. Research shows that eating these foods, especially those with added sugars, can increase the risk of developing depression by 50 percent. These foods may contribute to feelings of anxiety, too. One study found that people who reported a high intake of ultra-processed foods were more likely to report more anxious days.

Another study found possible links between ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline, showing that people who get more than 20 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods saw cognitive decline accelerate by 28 percent.

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Nutritional deficiencies

There is a consistent correlation between increased consumption of ultra-processed food and worsening nutritional quality. Specifically, increased intake of ultra-processed foods positively correlated with eating increased added sugars, total fat, and saturated fats and negatively correlated with fiber, protein, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, zinc, phosphorus, niacin, and vitamin B12.

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Additives and preservatives

There is not a lot of research about the effects of additives and preservatives on human health, but some studies have uncovered some correlations. Eating ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, and some artificial sweeteners may alter the gut biome and contrbute to obesity.

Diets high in nitrates, which are found in processed meats, may increase the risk of colon cancer. While a diet high in ultra-processed foods leads to a higher cancer risk overall, it is undetermined whether this is due to additives or other factors.

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Reducing ultra-processed food intake

A key way to reduce ultra-processed food in your diet is to learn how to identify them.

For example, potatoes are fresh, mashed potatoes are minimally processed, and french fries are ultra-processed.

Learn to read nutritional labels, incorporate as many fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet as possible, and avoid pre-packaged snacks, meals, and frozen entrees whenever possible. Cook fresh meals at home instead of going out to eat so you know exactly what is going into your meal.

  • Healthy tip: generally, the longer the list of ingredients, the more processed a food item is.

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Promoting whole and minimally processed foods

There are many benefits to eating a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Fruits contain natural sugars that do not cause blood sugar spikes and are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Vegetables are also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and some may have cancer-fighting properties or protect against cell damage.

Whole grains contribute to steady energy levels and can help with digestion, and lean proteins help repair tissue and build muscle. Eating various nutrient-dense foods reduces the chances of developing chronic diseases, maintains a healthy weight, and enjoys a better quality of life.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.