The Health Damaging Effects of Ultra-Processed Foods

Doughnuts Typically Qualify as an Ultra-Processed Food

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere. Estimates suggest that in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, over 50% of calorie consumption comes from ultra-processed foods (Popkin 2021). And other countries aren’t far behind. Yet as consumption increases, research continues to show that ultra-processed foods can cause significant damage to a person’s health. To better understand the concerns and the extent of the problem, it’s worth clarifying what constitutes an ultra-processed food.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

The definition of ultra-processed foods has changed some over time. The current definition is somewhat cumbersome:

“Industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, ingredients of ultra-processed foods include food substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, such as hydrolyzed protein, modified starches, and hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product, such as colorants, flavorings, non-sugar sweeteners, emulsifiers, humectants, sequestrants, and firming, bulking, de-foaming, anticaking, and glazing agents (Steele 2016).” 

Generally, you can recognize an ultra-processed food by its lengthy list of ingredients and numerous chemical constituents not found in a home kitchen as in the following example from a box of macaroni and cheese:

“Ingredients: Wheat Flour, Whey, Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Salt, Palm Oil, Canola Oil, Maltodextrin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Whey Protein Concentrate, Corn Syrup Solids, Modified Corn Starch, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Monosodium Glutamate, Yellow 6, Cultured Nonfat Milk, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Buttermilk, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Blue Cheese (Milk, Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Niacin, Iron, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid”

Other Examples of ultra-processed foods include (Monteiro 2019):

  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Packaged chips and snacks
  • Chocolates
  • Candies
  • Ice cream
  • Mass-produced breads and buns
  • Margarines and other spreads
  • Cookies
  • Pastries
  • Cakes and cake mixes
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Pre-prepared foods
  • Poultry and fish nuggets or sticks
  • Sausages
  • Hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products
  • Powdered instant soups
  • Flavored yogurts
  • Desserts

Ultra-processed foods are often high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. This combination may partly explain why they are so damaging, since nutrients are needed to process calories properly in the body. 

Health Effects of Ultra-Processed Foods

Evidence continues to build that suggests that ultra-processed have negative health effects. A recent analysis turned up concerning findings. Consumption of ultra-processed foods correlated with increased rates of (Chen 2020):

  • Death from any cause
  • Heart disease and blood vessel disease
  • Blockages or narrowing of the arteries to the heart
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Postmenopausal breast cancer
  • Adolescent asthma
  • Frailty

In one study, for every 10% of calories consumed from ultra-processed foods, the risk for death increased by 15% (Ferreiro 2021). For individuals consuming 50% of their calories as ultra-processed food, this equates to a 75% increased risk of death. These numbers are concerningly high, especially when considering countries where the average citizen consumes over half their calories as ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Kids

Most Breakfast Cereals Are Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed food consumption may be especially problematic in adolescents as they often have some of the highest consumption levels. These high consumption levels have been shown to correlate with depressive symptoms, “internalizing symptoms” and “externalizing symptoms.” To clarify, internalizing symptoms include symptoms of depression, anxiety, unexplained physical complaints, post-traumatic stress symptoms, obsessions and compulsions, while externalizing symptoms include aggression, disobedience, cheating, stealing and the destruction of property (Reales-Moreno 2022). 

Considering the high rates of mental health problems seen in today’s youth, reducing ultra-processed food consumption may be a valid and valuable tool for improving adolescent mental health. 


What we eat has a major impact on our health. And one way to assess diet quality is to evaluate the amount of ultra-processed foods being consumed. Over the last twenty years, data has been building that strongly suggests serious negative health consequences associated with eating ultra-processed food. Replacing ultra-processed foods in the diet with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds or other foods that are minimally processed, can significantly improve your health, even reducing your risk of death.

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