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Ultra-processed foods are designed to be addictively delicious. Just how unhealthy are they and what are the processed foods to avoid? We explain.
Words by Björn Ólafsson
It’s seemingly impossible to avoid ultra-processed foods. They’re quick, easy and convenient. They’re advertised to us constantly, with bright packaging that promises delectable morsels of joy inside. And, let’s face it, processed food is tasty.
But we’ve also heard countless stories about the harms of processed foods, with doctors decrying the delicious snacks as nothing but junk. Let’s dive into the science behind ultra-processed foods and see exactly how they affect your health.
What Is Ultra-processed Food?
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are heavily modified products, usually from industrial origin, that no longer resemble the food from which they are derived. The term originates from Brazilian food researchers who define UPFs as any food made from processed foods, usually with salt, sugar, oil and/or preservatives added in, too.
Today, the NOVA Food Classification System has created four categories of food that have become a widely-used industry standard:
There are a number of easy ways to identify ultra-processed foods. They are often sold in bright, colorful packaging . They usually contain many, many ingredients. They don’t look like any Group 1 food (a chocolate chip cookie is a far cry from a wheat stalk and a cacao pod). And, more often than not, they’re extremely tasty.
However, the NOVA system is not foolproof and has weathered plenty of criticism. Some claim that sorting foods into these neat categories implies a lack of nuance. After all, not all UPFs are equally harmful. The categories’ characteristics also overlap – for example, NOVA categorizes unsweetened yogurt as Group 1, even though fermentation (the process of creating yogurt) is associated with Group 3.
And, when tested, the NOVA classification system is less than scientific. In one study, French nutrition scientists (not affiliated with NOVA) were tasked with independently sorting foods according to NOVA’s stated criteria. When the results were tallied, the scientists disagreed with each other about the classification twice as often as they were in agreement, indicating a lack of reliability to NOVA’s criteria.
A vast majority – over 60 percent – of total calories consumed by people in the United States come from highly processed foods.
It’s easy to see why. In market research, UPFs constitute over 80 percent of packaged foods in grocery stores – they are constantly advertised to us in commercials, and are basically impossible to ignore. UPF ads are especially targeted at children using bright colors and funny cartoon mascots; conditioning that can lead to a pattern of unhealthy eating from a young age.
Many ultra-processed foods contain added fats, sugars, oils and salts.
Ultra-processed food consumption is linked to a number of adverse health outcomes. Based on a wealth of observational and correlational data, UPFs are associated with the following health conditions.
There is no single reason why ultra-processed food is unhealthy. Researchers are still asking questions about why UPFs are linked to adverse health outcomes. Here are some possible explanations.
Have you ever started eating a family-size bag of chips only to realize that, after what seemed like only a few bites, nearly the whole bag was gone? Well, UPFs often trigger an addictive potential – leading some people to overconsume the products, returning again and again to the supermarkets to buy more. There’s truth to the slogan: “You can never eat just one.”
UPFs typically don’t trigger satiety the way whole foods might. Your brain relies on cues from your body to determine when you are full and should stop eating, and UPFs are less likely to trigger this mechanism, due to a more frequent lack of fiber and protein. If you eat 1,000 calories of raw apples, for example, you’ll feel a lot more full than you would from 1,000 calories of Doritos.
This overconsumption can lead to poor health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease. While nutritionists are moving increasingly away from the simplified “calories in, calories out” mindset, excess calories sustained over time can impact a wide range of bodily functions, including sleep, digestion and hormone regulation.
Another reason UPFs impact health is not that they harm us outright, but that they end up replacing healthy foods that would naturally help us fight off disease. Eating large amounts of UPFs makes it harder to eat substantial amounts of whole foods, which are chock-full of disease fighting nutrients. If we fill our plates with nutrient-poor UPFs, it’s harder to get enough calories from foods that help us stave off disease.
The very things that make UPFs delicious are often what make them harmful. While every diet needs salt, carbs and fat, when overconsumed, they are tied to unhealthy conditions.
Excess sugar intake, common in UPFs, is linked to high blood pressure, weight gain and heart disease. Trans fats are linked to high cholesterol. And salt – the savory deliciousness present in nearly all UPFs – is linked to heart disease, stroke, and can even sap out other nutrients from the body.
Many people criticize plant-based meats, such as Beyond Chicken, Impossible Burgers or Gardein fish sticks, as UPFs. While this is true, the fact that they are highly processed might still pose less of a health risk than eating red meat.
In one study, replacing red meat with plant-based meats didn’t cause many of the health effects associated with UPFs. This was a small sample size, and the health research into plant-based products is still relatively young, but it indicates that the benefits of meat reduction outweigh the consequences of UPFs.
Of course, not all plant-based substitutes are ultra-processed. Tofu, tempeh and seitan are minimally processed foods that offer plenty of nutrients with little or no added fats or salts.
Overall, it’s the switch that’s important. If you are replacing lentil stews and roasted chickpeas with ultra-processed plant-based burgers, that is the less nutritious choice. But if you are replacing meat and chicken tenders, the evidence suggests you are still lowering your risk of several diseases.
How Can I Cut Back On Ultra-processed Foods?
Given our modern food system that prioritizes processing above all else, cutting back on UPFs can be an uphill battle. If you want to reduce your consumption, here are a few ways to do so.
The easiest way to reduce consumption of UPFs is to increase your intake of whole foods. Whole foods comprise anything unprocessed, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and beans. If you can hold the food item in your hand and see that it comes from one ingredient, it’s a whole food. Check out local farmers’ markets or the produce aisle of your nearest supermarket.
A minimally processed food has gone through light changes for preservation but has all the same nutritional qualities of unprocessed foods. Think pickles, salted peanuts, frozen chopped vegetables and whole-grain breads. These options are more accessible than whole foods and will last longer in your fridge or pantry.
Remember that ultra-processed foods are just a category. Not every UPF is inherently bad for you by the simple virtue of being a UPF. And not all UPFs are created equal.
A package of Oreos has basically no nutritional value, while a processed granola bar will likely have fiber, some vitamins, and maybe even protein. Soy milk has protein and calcium, while orange soda just has sugar. A premade pasta sauce gives you the vitamins A, C and K from tomatoes, while a jar of mayo most likely only has trans fat.
Of course, not everyone is able to access healthy options on a daily basis. For better or for worse, it is near-impossible to entirely rid our diets of processed foods, especially if we live in food deserts. Therefore, we should be more mindful of the nutritional content of the UPFs we consume, helping us avoid many of the worst health effects.
Making decisions about food can be tricky. It can feel like you need to balance your health, your convenience, the food’s climate impact and taste, all within a single meal.
Reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods is probably a good idea in the long run, but it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Be mindful of nutrients, both macro and micro, and the salt, fat and sugar in UPFs.
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