Junk food can mean many different things to different individuals.
The official dietary guidelines use more appealing terms, such as “discretionary food,” “sometimes food,” and “foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat.” These labels are not always helpful in identifying healthy foods. Even though some fresh fruits and vegetables are low in nutrients, they are still healthy. Food products like soft drinks that have “no additional sugar” or muesli bars with added nutrients are not necessarily healthy.
In 2009, experts suggested using industrial food processing to determine nutrition issues.
It was acknowledged that some food processing makes foods more convenient, safe, and tasty. It also deemed a group of foods, called “ultra-processed foods,” as unhealthy based on factors other than salt, sugar, and fat content.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows the consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to poorer health, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, and health, including plastic pollution, excessive land use, and biodiversity loss.
How can you identify these foods when planning to purchase or eat them?
Read more: Ultra-processed foods are trashing our health – and the planet.
What counts as an ultra-processed food?
Ultra-processed foods have been made with industrial processing techniques and may contain ingredients that you would not normally find in your pantry.
Processes that are used include extrusion, molding, chemical modification, and hydrogenation. (Hydrogenation can transform liquid unsaturated fatty acids into solid forms). It cannot be easy to distinguish ultra-processed food because manufacturers are not required to list the processing methods on the labels. Start with the list of ingredients.
Food substances are classified as ultra-processed food, and so are cosmetic additives. Food substances are processed versions of proteins and fibers (such as inulin or whey), maltodextrin, a carbohydrate that is highly processed, fructose and glucose syrups, and hydrogenated oil.
Cosmetic additives can be used to enhance the taste, texture, or color of food. They make ultra-processed food more appealing and irresistible (contributing to their overconsumption). Colors and flavors, including those that are listed as “natural,” non-caloric sugars (including stevia), flavor enhancers such as yeast extract or MSG, and thickeners/emulsifiers that modify the texture of a food can all be examples.
Read more: Ultra-processed foods – like cookies, chips, frozen meals, and fast food – may contribute to cognitive decline.
Eight foods you might not realize are ultra-processed
It is important to understand that ultra-processed does not mean junk food. Foods like chips, soft drinks, and confectionery are all ultra-processed. Many packaged foods that we would normally consider healthy are ultra-processed.
1. Breakfast cereals
Most cereals and breakfast beverages marketed as healthy, however, are highly processed. These products can include maltodextrins and processed proteins, fibers, and colors. Oats contain only one ingredient: oats.
2. Bars and balls of protein and muesli
In spite of the health hype, most are ultra-processed and contain processed fibers, proteins, inverted sugars (sugars that an industrial process has modified), and non-caloric sweetness.
3. Plant-based ‘milks’
Some dairy alternatives are made with emulsifiers or vegetable gums. Check the list of ingredients to see if all brands are ultra-processed. Some soymilks contain only water, soybeans, and oil.
Some foods that are highly processed can be easily identified. Some foods are healthy. Shutterstock
Read more: Food and drinks are getting sweeter. Even if it’s not all sugar, it’s bad for our health
Packaged breads often contain emulsifiers and modified starches, which are starches that industrial methods have altered. These breads tend to be cheaper, plastic-wrapped, and sliced. Fresh bakery breads are not as processed.
Flavored yogurts may contain additives such as thickeners and sweeteners without calories or flavors. Instead, choose plain yogurts.
6. Meal bases, sauces, and other ingredients
Pre-prepared sauces for pasta and stir-fries are often made with thickeners, flavor enhancers, and colors. Simple sauces that you can make yourself at home using ingredients such as canned tomatoes, vegetables, and garlic are minimally processed.
7. Processed meat
Cold meats packaged in plastic may contain emulsifiers and thickeners, as well as modified starches. They are ultra-processed. Instead of packaged processed meats, opt for alternatives like cold roast meats and chicken.
Margarines, non-dairy spreads, and margarine-like products are ultra-processed foods. They contain additives, like emulsifiers, colors, and emulsifiers, unlike butter which is basically cream and salt.