There is much concern with the amount of highly or ultra-processed foods the typical American eats - over 50% of the calories eaten daily! Ultra-processed foods are linked to all sorts of health issues (e.g., diabetes, heart disease). One reason is because these foods are not good for the gut microbiome - they feed microbes linked to poor health and not the microbes linked to good health.
So how does one know if a food is ultra-processed? An easy way is to look at the ingredients list on the package or container and look for one or more ingredients not normally found in our kitchens at home. Instead, these ingredients will have chemical sounding names.
What ingredients indicate a food is ultra-processed? Some examples indicating a food is ultra-processed: soy lecithin, carrageenan, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, invert sugar, dextrose, lactose, gluten, whey protein, nitrates, flavors, colors, titanium dioxide, caramel color, and emulsifiers. The list goes on and on. Even the innocent sounding "natural flavors" is a laboratory concoction.
These ingredients have typically been added to extend shelf-life or manipulate the taste, flavor, or appearance. Ultra-processed foods are "formulations of ingredients" that result from a series of industrial processes (thus "ultra-processed"). Researchers of the following article say that "ultra-processed foods are not real food" due to all the modifications and alterations.
Note that ultra-processed foods can be on the grocery shelf right next to similar foods with all natural ingredients. Examples are breads, cereals, and maple syrup (is it real maple syrup or an ultra-processed concoction?). This is why you should read ingredient lists.
Also, these foods are generally ultra-processed: soda, candy, margarines, cake mixes, hot dogs and processed meats (e.g., cold cuts), instant soups, mass-produced breads and cookies, frozen meals, fast food meals, energy bars and drinks, and protein bars.
By the way, most foods that we buy or cook at home are processed to some extent, for example pasteurization of milk, freezing or boiling foods, fermentation, seasoning foods, cooking food, or even baking bread. Using real foods to prepare (process) food is OK for our health. It's totally fine.
Foods can be unprocessed (e.g., raw fruits and vegetables), minimally processed, processed, and finally ultra-processed. The ingredients will tell you if it's just processed food (contains only normal foods or culinary ingredients - e.g., flour, sugar, salt, eggs) or whether it's ultra-processed (contains one or more chemical sounding ingredients).
These foods are NOT ultra-processed: pasteurized milk, raw fruits and vegetables, starchy roots and tubers (e.g., potatoes, yams), chilled meat and fish, plant oils (e.g., olive oil), sugar, oats, and salt.
A big problem is that ultra-processed foods are replacing unprocessed or minimally processed foods in our diet. This is also why we are getting less and less fiber in our diet, which is linked to health problems. Simple way to think about it: fiber from foods feeds beneficial gut microbes.
Excerpts from an April 2019 article in Public Health Nutrition: Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them
Ultra-processed foods are defined within the NOVA classification system, which groups foods according to the extent and purpose of industrial processing.
Processes enabling the manufacture of ultra-processed foods include the fractioning of whole foods into substances, chemical modifications of these substances, assembly of unmodified and modified food substances, frequent use of cosmetic additives and sophisticated packaging. Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life, emphatic branding), convenient (ready-to-consume), hyper-palatable products liable to displace all other NOVA food groups, notably unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
A practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group, which is to say, either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents).
Almost all foods are processed to some extent, if only by preservation, and it is therefore unhelpful to criticise foods as being ‘processed’. A number of food classifications have been devised that pay special attention to types of processing.
Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’).
Processes enabling the manufacture of ultra-processed foods involve several steps and different industries. It starts with the fractioning of whole foods into substances that include sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fibre. These substances are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming. Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications.
Ultra-processed foods include carbonated soft drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; chocolate, candies (confectionery); ice cream; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and other spreads; cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’; pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts; and many other products (see online supplementary material, Supplemental Table 1).
Conclusion: Ultra-processed foods are not ‘real food’. As stated, they are formulations of food substances often modified by chemical processes and then assembled into ready-to-consume hyper-palatable food and drink products using flavours, colours, emulsifiers and a myriad of other cosmetic additives. Most are made and promoted by transnational and other giant corporations. Their ultra-processing makes them highly profitable, intensely appealing and intrinsically unhealthy.
Another article, this one from GI Society - Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: Everything in moderation? Focusing on ultra-processed foods