When you hear the term ‘processed food,’ what examples come to mind? Perhaps colored ketchup, artificially flavored soda and potato chips that never seem to expire.
But according to dietitian Lindsey Wohlford, processed food is any food that has been altered from its original state. “In general, most people say ‘processed foods’ as an umbrella term for anything that's processed,” she says.
With such a broad definition, it can be challenging to determine which processed foods are OK to eat in moderation and which should be avoided.
Learn the difference between processed and ultra-processed foods
To help, think about processed food as a spectrum. At the far end of the spectrum are unprocessed or minimally processed foods like whole grain oats or apples.
In the middle of the spectrum, there are processed foods that have a few added ingredients but still resemble whole food ingredients in some way. Canned vegetables, freshly baked bread and pasteurized milk are processed foods.
At the other end of the spectrum are ultra-processed foods. These are the stereotypical junk foods that are so far removed from whole foods that Wohlford refers to them as ‘food-based products.’ “These food-based products are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, derived from food components or synthesized in laboratories,” she says.
These ultra-processed foods are packed with additives like oil, fat, sugar, starch, proteins and sodium. In the production process, they are stripped of the nutrients that help our bodies feel good and stay healthy. These ultra-processed foods are linked to weight gain, and health issues including heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
“It is very challenging to avoid consuming all processed foods,” says Wohlford. “The key is to make sure the majority of the time you are choosing whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods."
Below, we share seven examples of ultra-processed foods, as well as tips for telling just how processed an item is.
Examples of ultra-processed food
Pre-packaged snacks such as chips, cookies and crackers can be a lifesaver in a hurry, but they aren’t always the healthiest option.
Still, life gets busy, and sometimes the snack aisle is the easiest option. In this case, Wohlford recommends checking the ingredients label on the side of a snack’s package to make sure everything is recognizable. “Look for foods that have ingredients. Either the food itself is in its natural state for the most part, or there are some ingredients that are in their natural state,” Wohlford says.
She uses crackers as an example, noting that a three-ingredient cracker made with whole wheat, oil and salt is still processed, but less so than one made with super-refined flour and other chemicals.
Another rule of thumb? The fewer ingredients, the better.
"If you're getting up to 10, 15, 20 ingredients, it's going to be a lot more processed than something that's three or five ingredients,” Wohlford says.
Instead, Wohlford suggests keeping your fridge and pantry stocked with grab and go options such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and hard-boiled eggs.
In addition to its ingredients list, another clue that a food might be ultra-processed is the “best if used by” date.
For example, much of the packaged sliced bread, buns and baked goods lining the shelves at a grocery store contain additives and preservatives to help them stay fresh for up to a week or more after baking. On the contrary, freshly baked bread without preservatives usually stays fresh between three and five days.
“If bread or other products have had preservatives added to it to extend the shelf-life, then it is likely ultra-processed,” Wohlford says.
The first meal of the day is also many people’s first interaction with ultra-processed food.
Many breakfast cereals are ultra-processed and include added sugar and ultra-refined grains.
Instead, Wohlford recommends starting the morning with oats or a bowl of whole-grain cereal made with recognizable ingredients.
It can be tricky to tell how processed a meat product is because a certain amount of processing occurs just to make them edible, says Wohlford.
Fresh animal protein and products like pre-cut steak or fish are considered minimally processed, while ultra-processed meat includes lunch meats, hotdogs, bacon, sausage, jerky or any other meat that has been processed to change its shape, flavor and freshness.
Ultra-processed foods might also sneak their way into your diet as condiments, including ketchup, salad dressing and sauces.
When you spot a shelf-stable option, check the ingredients list and the “best if used by” date. If there are lots of ingredients you don’t recognize, or a “best if used by” date that is years in the future, consider other options like whipping up a vinaigrette for your salad at home.
Sweetened and alcoholic beverages
Soda, juice and sports drinks can be laden with added sugars and artificial colors and flavoring, placing them squarely in the ultra-processed category.
Another ultra-processed beverage category that might surprise you? Alcoholic drinks. While alcohol can form naturally, most alcoholic beverages go through an extensive manufacturing process before being raised for a toast or cracked open on a hot summer’s day.
“Certain alcohols can form naturally from rotten fruits and things like that,” Wohlford says. “But, by and large, it’s something that's processed, it’s created in a factory.”
While no alcohol is best, women who choose to drink should have no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two drinks a day.
Candy and desserts
If you have a sweet tooth, it might be a bit of a toothache to learn that candy, along with many store-bought desserts including ice cream, cakes and cookies, are considered ultra-processed.
In addition to checking the ingredients list and “best if used by” date, note whether the sweet treat you have your eye on comes from a manufacturer or is pre-packaged. If so, it's likely ultra-processed.
For a healthier dessert alternative, Wohlford suggests a piece of fruit, or a homemade fruit crisp made with whole grain oats and cinnamon.
“You can easily create a sweet treat using whole foods or minimally processed foods. This will make your dessert a treat that is actually beneficial to your body," Wohlford says.