Get the Fast Facts on Ultra-Processed Foods 

Get the Fast Facts on Ultra-Processed Foods 

Recent attention around processed food, particularly “ultra-processed” foods, has made headlines across the country. You may find yourself asking “What exactly are ultra-processed foods, and are they unhealthy?”

Foods are processed for several reasons including to prevent spoilage, ensure food safety, maintain or enhance taste and flavor, improve nutritional value, and lengthen shelf life. The degree of processing varies depending on the type of food and can range from minimally processed to highly processed. Ultra-processed foods fall into the highly processed category. Although researchers, regulators and food experts are still debating the exact definition, ultra-processed foods generally are those made using industrial, scientific processing methods and typically have five or more ingredients. However, this in no way means foods considered “ultra processed” are inherently bad or unhealthy. In fact, a recent study led by scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center showed that it’s possible to build a healthy diet with more than 90 percent of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Don’t let misleading headlines deceive you into thinking you need to cut out your favorite or even staple foods from your diet. You might find it surprising that these common food items could be considered ultra-processed by ranking systems like the NOVA scale.

  • Breakfast Cereals: Many breakfast cereals are fortified with important vitamins and minerals and are a good way to increase dairy intake.

  • Flavored Greek Yogurt: Yogurt is a good source of calcium and some brands even add probiotics, which help improve gut health.

  • Peanut Butter: Not only is peanut butter a favorite among children and adults but it contains a slew of health-promoting nutrients, including vitamin E, magnesium, iron, selenium, vitamin B6, and protein.

  • Plant-based Milks: Well-liked by consumers, plant-based milks like almond, oat, and soy are good choices for people who are lactose intolerant or have other dietary preferences.

  • Frozen Pizza: Not all pizza is created equally. Even more so, the increased consumer demand for low-carb, plant-based and gluten-free variations to their favorite foods has drove innovation like cauliflower crust pizzas that are higher in fiber and lower in calories than more traditional alternatives.

  • Canned Baked Beans: A favorite at family gatherings, baked beans are loaded with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

  • Protein Bars: Protein bars are often packed with vitamins and minerals. Read and compare Nutrition Facts Labels to find the best match for you. Don’t just focus on the protein; start by aiming for 3 – 10 grams of dietary fiber and added sugars to less than 8 grams per bar.