Behind the Packaging The Shocking Truth About UltraProcessed Foods and Your Health

As you look down your grocery cart or stroll down a restaurant menu, it’s easy to see why some experts are concerned about our ultra-processed food consumption. These foods are made from cheap ingredients and are often low in nutrients, leading to a diet that can contribute to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and an overall shorter lifespan. Read more

But determining what constitutes an ultra-processed food isn’t as simple as it seems. For starters, there’s no widely accepted definition of what it means to be ultra-processed. A few years ago, scientists took a stab at defining it based on the extent and purpose of processing. They came up with a system called NOVA, which is now used by many nutrition and public health researchers to categorize foods.

Unmasking Deceptive Delicacies: The Startling Reality of Ultra-Processed Foods and Their Impact on Health

The problem with NOVA is that it lumps together whole foods with different levels of processing. For example, a yogurt with tons of sugar would be considered ultra-processed under the system, but so would one that has a little bit of honey added. This oversimplifies things, making it harder to know whether something is good or bad for you.

To make your shopping and eating decisions easier, Mayo Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist Kate Zeratsky suggests thinking about three simple categories of food: unprocessed or naturally processed; semi-processed; and ultra-processed. “Ultra-processed foods tend to be industrial creations containing ingredients like bulking agents, hydrolyzed protein isolates, color stabilizers and humectants,” she says. To avoid them, Zeratsky recommends sticking to whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables and limiting added sugar, salt and fat.