Live Longer, Healthier, Happier by Reducing Ultra-Processed Foods

If you want to live a longer, healthier life, one thing you can do today is reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods. Outlined here is an overview of exactly what constitutes “ultra-processed”, what are some of the risks and how you might reduce consumption of these foods.

What are Ultra-processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are energy-dense, high in unhealthy types of fat, refined starches, sugars and salt. They are poor sources of protein, low in fiber and other micronutrients. Ultra-processed products are things you cannot make in your kitchen. By design, they are formulated to be hyper-palatable and attractive, with long shelf-life, and easy to consume anywhere, any time. These foods are made and marketed to promote overconsumption. Examples include: sweet, fatty or salty packaged snack products, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages and energy drinks, chocolates, candy, French fries, burgers and hot dogs, and poultry and fish nuggets.

How Foods are Classified

NOVA (which is not an acronym) groups foods according to the nature, extent and purpose of industrial processing. Food processing, as identified by NOVA, involves physical, biological and chemical processes used after foods are separated from nature, and prior to consumption. NOVA classifies all foods and food products into four groups.

Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature. Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum-packaging.

Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, are substances derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying.

Group 3. Processed foods

Processed foods, such as bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads, are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients, and are recognizable as modified versions of Group 1 foods.

Group 4. Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly, or entirely, from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food.

Ingredients likely include those used in processed foods, such as sugars, oils, fats or salt.

Additives in ultra-processed foods include some used in processed foods, such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers. Classes of additives found only in ultra-processed products include those which imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects. These include dyes and colors, color stabilizers; flavors, flavor enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners; and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, and humectants.

What are the Risks?

      • Diets high in ultra-processed foods – like soda, chips, sugar-laden cereal, fast food and more –  have been linked to increases in heart disease, weight gain, cancer, and even mortality.
      • Processing changes the complex structure of nutrients in a food. Research has shown that changes in this “food matrix” changes how our bodies respond to food, potentially increasing the risk of developing many health conditions, cancers and diseases.
      • Just this year, researchers at the Imperial College London published data from a long-term study on the risk of cancer and a link to higher consumption of ultra-processed foods. Researchers monitored the diets of close to 200,000 UK residents from 2006 to 2010 and found that the amount of ultra-p-rocessed foods eaten ranged from 9.1% to 41.4%. With each 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there was a 2% increase in developing any cancer – and a 19% increase in risk of ovarian cancer.
      • Another study analyzed the diets of more than 44,000 French adults for 7 years and found that high consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked with an increased risk of death. A study of almost 20,000 adults in Spain had similar findings.
      • A large study of more than 100,000 French adults followed over 5 years showed that eating more ultra-processed foods was linked with a greater risk of heart disease.
      • A similar analysis of the same participants found that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was linked with a 12% higher risk of cancer.
      • There isn’t a lot of data on ultra-processed foods and mental health, but some studies show that eating a lot of these types of foods can be linked to an increased risk of depression — up to 20% higher in some cases.

Examples of Ultra-Processed Foods

  • Soda and energy drinks
  • Sweet and savory packaged snacks; chips and cookies
  • Many breakfast cereals; Fruit Loops and even Whole-Grain Cheerios, which has 8 grams of added sugar per 1 1/3 cup serving
  • Instant noodles like ramen
  • Microwave-ready meals and many frozen items
  • Energy bars or granola bars
  • Candy
  • Fast food and some fast-casual food
  • Sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts
  • Most store-bought bread; just because it is “multi-grain” doesn’t make it healthy.

How to Reduce Consumption:

  • Choose whole fruit and vegetables (both fresh and frozen)
  • Choose (in limited quantities because of higher sugar content) dried fruits and nuts with no added sugar, salt, or oil – even fruit roll-ups typically have extra added ingredients, source those that are just fruit. BEAR, or “That’s It” are examples of brands.
  • Opt for dried pulses and legumes (such as chickpeas and lentils) that you soak and cook and freeze to use when you need. Not only is this cheaper, you will bypass added preservatives and sugars.
  • Source or bake your own limited-ingredient, whole-grain carbohydrates (whole wheat bread, oats, whole wheat pasta, etc.) instead  of grain mixes and ready made servings with added salt, fillers, coloring, sugars and preservatives.
  • Seek fresh meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Aldi is a good option for lower cost protein sources.
  • Opt for Greek, plain or natural yogurt with no added sugar, fillers and preservatives. Many yogurts are loaded with extra ingredients. Choose brands like Skyr, Oikos, Chobani and add your own fruit.
  • Use fresh or single ingredient herbs and spices. These will add some interest when you reduce fats and salt. Try to avoid blends with typically contain fillers and sugars.
  • Swap in tea, coffee, water for soda and energy drinks. Think about consuming only zero-calorie, no-additive beverages.

The key to reducing these items, is to take it slow. Choose one area that is the most problematic for you and that you can get yourself to easily do. Give it at least one week, preferably two, then start reducing in other areas over time.

Other Actions to Take: 

  • Cook at home as often as you can   Cook in bulk and freeze much of what you cook. Not only will you know what is in your food, you will be able to easily assemble meals quickly when time-pressed
  • Take a packed lunch to school or work every day
  • Check food labels for fillers, binders, additives, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars
  • Snack on whole foods, rather than pre-packaged snacks
  • Reduce how much fast food you eat. If you consume fast food and fast casual daily or several times a week, reduce by 1-2 times per week and then continue. Not only will you save money, you will save time by taking your own food and you will most likely save your health.

Confused? Overwhelmed? Curious to start but don’t know how? A coach who has studied health and nutrition, like me, can help.


I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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