Processed Foods Vs. Ultra-Processed Foods – What Is the Difference?

Processed Foods Vs. Ultra-Processed Foods – What Is the Difference?

It’s likely that you’ve heard health professionals say that the secret to optimum health is to eat whole foods and avoid processed ones.

For instance, a study published in December 2022 provided a startling statistic tying ultra-processed foods to cognitive decline, stating that those who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories from processed foods experienced a 28 percent quicker decline in global cognition and a 25 percent decline in executive functioning than those who consumed less than 20 percent.

You’re not the only one who doesn’t understand what “ultra-processed” food is. It’s a challenging subject.

Being completely free of all processed foods can be challenging, if not impossible, as the majority of foods are at least minimally processed — typically for preservation or safety reasons. It’s also superfluous.

Dietitian Ashlee Wright told HuffPost “Processed foods tend to get a negative reputation, but there are also many minimally processed foods that are good for us, in fact. If we think about foods, such as baby carrots, nuts, chicken and fish, these have to be processed in some way, but they still only have one ingredient.”

Ultra-processed foods, such as frozen meals, doughnuts, cookies, and candy, are at the other end of the spectrum from conventionally processed foods.

These frequently have numerous ingredients, many of which you have never heard of and cannot pronounce.

Nutritionists advise limiting these foods.

Nutritionists admit that it can be challenging to distinguish between processed and ultra-processed foods. Here are some suggestions to assist you in sorting them.

 “Just about all food needs to be processed to eat it, so this can be so confusing,” said Colleen Tewksbury, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Processed foods’ nutritional value is typically determined by additional ingredients, such as salt or sugar, that are added during processing.

Foods that have undergone modifications to their natural state are referred to as processed foods by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Therefore, it refers to any raw agricultural product that has been cooked, frozen, dehydrated, chopped, or canned.

Registered Kristine Dilley “Many foods that people think of as whole foods technically are minimally processed, like frozen fruits or vegetables, or those bags of pre-cut veggies at the grocery store.”

According to Dilley, processing methods like pasteurization, canning, or dehydration make food safer to store and ensure that it keeps for longer periods of time.

There are variations among processed foods.

The NOVA food classification system, created by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is one way to explain the various levels of processed foods. Four categories make up the system.

Group 1: Foods with Minimal or No Processing.

This describes foods like fruits, vegetables, seeds, eggs, fungi, and milk that are either eaten raw or modified to remove undesirable or inedible components like stems or shells.

To maintain their natural state, store them, or improve their flavor, the foods may be dried, filtered, roasted, frozen, or packaged.

Group 2: Prepared Food Ingredients.

These products, which include oils, butter, lard, sugar, and salt, come from Group 1 of nature.

They are almost never eaten alone; they are typically used to prepare foods from Group 1.

Group 3: Processed Foods.

These foods are created by adding Group 2 items, such as salt, sugar, or oil, to Group 1 foods. Pickles, fish in a can, cheese, fruits and vegetables in a can, bacon, and fresh bread are a few examples. Typically, the foods maintain their essential identity as well as some of their original qualities.

Group 4: Ultra-Processed Foods.

Ultra-processed foods are in group 4. Industrial techniques are used to produce these products, such as hydrogenation and the addition of emulsifiers, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and preservatives.

In addition to packaged bread, cookies, and cakes, they also include pre-made meat, pasta, and pizza as well as soft drinks, candy, and fast food.

Ultra-processed foods typically come in a variety of flavors, are reasonably priced, and offer convenience.


Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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