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Is your food ultra-processed? Here’s how to identify

Ultra-processed foods are associated with many health risks, including diabetes. So, know how to identify ultra-processed foods.
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Ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. Image courtesy: Freepik
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 19 Feb 2024, 08:59 am IST
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Highly processed foods are tasty and convenient, but ultra-processed foods are no good for your health. The term comes from the NOVA food classification system, which groups foods as per the extent and purpose of industrial processing. Such foods have been linked to diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes. If you check the label of ultra-processed foods, you will find the list of ingredients to be pretty long. They are typically high in refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. For the sake of your health, you should know how to identify ultra-processed foods.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are products that typically contain multiple ingredients, many of which are additives, preservatives, and flavourings. These foods undergo extensive processing, says dietician Ekta Singhwal.

Woman holding a bucket of chips
Ultra-processed foods are not nutritious. Image courtesy: Freepik

Processed foods vs ultra-processed foods

Processed foods are those that have been altered from their natural state for preservation or convenience, but they may still retain some nutritional value. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are highly modified products that bear little resemblance to their original ingredients.

How do ultra-processed foods affect health?

Ultra-processed foods can have detrimental effects on your health. A 2019 study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between ultra-processed food and an increased risk for developing diabetes. Participants who had more ultra-processed foods (22 percent of their diet) had more chances of developing diabetes in comparison to those who consumed less amount of such foods (around 11 percent of their diet).

Such foods may also increase your chances of being obese, as they tend to be high in calories, sugar and unhealthy fats, says the expert.

How to identify ultra-processed foods?

To identify ultra-processed foods, it is essential to understand the characteristics and ingredients that distinguish them from less processed options, says Singhwal.

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Woman holding sweets
Check the label to identify ultra-processed foods. Image courtesy: Freepik

1. Types of foods

  • Mass-produced packaged snacks are often high in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and added sugars. Examples include chips, candy bars, sweetened cereals, and flavoured popcorn.
  • Ready-to-eat meals are convenience foods designed for quick preparation and consumption. They often contain artificial additives, preservatives, and high levels of sodium. Examples include frozen dinners, instant noodles, fast food burgers, and pre-packaged sandwiches.
  • Sugary drinks are loaded with added sugars, artificial flavours, and preservatives. They provide little to no nutritional value and contribute to excess calorie intake. Examples include soda, energy drinks, sweetened fruit juices, and flavoured water.
  • Packaged baked goods are typically high in refined flour, sugar, and unhealthy fats. They often contain additives to enhance flavour, texture, and shelf life. Examples include packaged cakes, cookies, pastries, and sweetened bread.
  • Reconstituted meat products are made from processed meat scraps and fillers, often containing added preservatives, flavour enhancers, and stabilisers. Examples include chicken nuggets, hot dogs and fish sticks.

2. Read the labels

When examining food labels, look for ingredients that indicate a high level of processing. These include:

  • Artificial colours and flavours that are often added to enhance the appearance and taste of ultra-processed foods.
  • Chemical additives like BHA, BHT, and sodium nitrate are used to prolong shelf life, says the expert.
  • High-fructose corn syrup is a highly refined sweetener commonly found in processed foods and beverages.
  • Hydrogenated oils are trans fats often present in ultra-processed foods to improve texture and increase shelf stability.
  • Various chemical additives like emulsifiers, stabilisers, and thickeners, which are used to modify texture and consistency.

It may be difficult to remove ultra-processed foods completely from your diet. But try to eat minimally processed foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains whenever possible. This way you can make healthier choices. Click here for more on how to reduce ultra-processed foods in your diet.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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