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What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health?

January 9, 2020

About the Author

photo of Katherine D. McManus, MS, RD, LDN

Katherine D. McManus, MS, RD, LDN, Contributor

Kathy McManus is Director of the Department of Nutrition and Director of the Dietetic Internship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School in Boston. In addition, she serves as the … See Full Bio
View all posts by Katherine D. McManus, MS, RD, LDN


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January 22, 2020

Although primarily meant to educate/elucidate the public at large between a healthy vs unhealthy (health-wise, questionable) dietary choices in general, unfortunately, it seems to fail in its primary mission.
Minimally it lacks the following components.
Fails to address:
why some choices are clearly/mechanistically, healthy/unhealthy/less than optimal.
pros and cons of each choice
Good/healthy alternatives

Has indeed left a big/grand canyon gap addressing the optimal vs less than optimal vs poor choices, even in common dietary varieties preparations/styles

Michael Bernhardt
January 21, 2020

I agree with your article, but I disagree strongly with your examples. A baked potato is not processed, it is only cooked. Canned corn cannot be considered processed in my opinion. Apple juice is more processed than the apples in apple pie. Carrot juice is more processed than the carrots in carrot cake. Added sugar is a whole other matter.

Sam Bolton
January 21, 2020

I always wonder where home cooked/prepared food fits into this, and e.g. a smoothie or muffin. These can still be healthy, depending on the ingredients but are they still considered ultra-processed? What about hummus? Again, probably ultra-processed, but if you make your own, then it can be all healthy ingredients.

Abdullah khan
January 21, 2020

the past ages people were strong , healthy, and have long lives, because they do not eat process foods. Every things were in the natural forms, thanks to Harvard they giving awareness to the world.

January 21, 2020

I feel the distinction between processed and ultra processed is not completely clear in this article. Surely its particular ingredients that exist in ultra processed foods (like sulphite in sausages) that are the problem or particular kinds of processes- e.g. white flour has less fibre than wholemeal. The article is very fuzzy. You can’t simply say a cookie is ultra processed and therefore bad to eat.

January 21, 2020

Does this mean whenever we cook food, like chicken or broccoli then it becomes processed? How is a baked potato Considered processed?

Lawrence Odili
January 20, 2020

This is good , more on this topic.

January 20, 2020

I think your table of examples needs some serious rework. A baked potato is not much more processed than a potato. Are you suggesting potatoes should best be eaten raw? As another example, flour is processed for certain, but most everything except for gravy with flour in it is a baked product. So really, those are processed foods. The flour is pretty much irrelevant because nobody eats flour by itself.

January 20, 2020

What about foods like cheese and tofu or kombucha (fermented)? They are ultra-processed in a sense.

Yuli Kornblum
January 20, 2020

This may be a transient response to the new food. It is just possible that after some time the system will be used to the new food. Also the mention of the bread in the ultra-processed food. Can we eat the bread ingredients without baking them? It is just possible that eating a doughnut from time to time is beneficial as it makes the person eating them happy.

January 20, 2020

The ultra-processed apple pie listing – is that commercially purchased apple pie or one baked from scratch at home?

January 20, 2020

I noticed that steaming foods (veggies) was not listed as a means of minimally processing. Isn’t it?

January 20, 2020

Canned sardines (perhaps other fishes as well) are often recommended in healthy-eating diets. Yet, according to this article, they are ultra-processed food (and, indeed, few brands are relatively less salty – excepting such a brand as BRUNSWICK that can be purchased at Price Shopper in NY). My question is: are canned fish or, in general, canned seafood healthy at all?

Michael Corbett
January 20, 2020

Baking the potato makes it processed? Does anyone really eat potatoes uncooked???

January 20, 2020

I always thought processed food are food like sausageds, deli meat, store bought frozen food that are mass produced.
Is home cooked dish considered ‘ultra processed food’? I am confused about how they are defined here.

Jim McRae
January 20, 2020

Why are snacks offered between meals in dietary studies?
With increasing evidence that it may be “ better” to eat in a 10 hour window the time between three meals around 3 hours and snacks should not be necessary. Many snacks are highly processed and calorie bombs.

January 20, 2020

Highly processed foods often contain highly processed ingredients like modified food starch that enhance product stability, flavor and mouth feel. Also, there is a long list of food additive preservatives that may be on the GRAS list but are found in many of these processed foods resulting in greater consumption than is considered safe. And then, what about ultra-processed food safety among young and old people?

Dave Glass
January 20, 2020

I would guess that wine would have to be an ultra processed food that is generally considered healthy. If fermentation is OK, then how about black tea?

January 20, 2020

These are honestly terrible descriptions of processed, ultra processed, etc.

Baking a potato makes it processed? Wouldn’t that be minimally processed? Cookies are ultra processed even if you made them at home? These are crazy generalizations and this table at the end makes me doubt everything. French fries – from a fast food restaurant, ultra processed for sure. If I make them at home – they are cut and cooked, that’s minimally processed. Flour is processed? We eating whole wheat berries now? White flour, sure. But flour in and of itself would be minimally processed, wouldn’t it?

January 10, 2020

Tofu is a processed food (fairly heavily processed) that perhaps is an except to the rule.

Would sauerkraut and kimchi also be considered to be “processed” foods?

steven j
January 20, 2020

No, tofu is not heavily processed as it retains it’s nutrients and vitamins. Sauerkraut is fermented and is minimally processed. And in fact is much better than raw cabbage. Just about everything life has exceptions. Not sure you get this

January 21, 2020

I don’t believe fermenting is considered processing. Fermentation doesn’t strip away vitamins or minerals…it actually adds important things like pre and pro biotics

Commenting has been closed for this post.

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