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Is your family eating ultra-processed foods?

Woman looking at nutrition label

You’ve likely been told to eat more fresh foods and less processed foods for better health. It may sound simple, but what exactly does the term “processed” mean, and what about the terms, “ultra-processed” and “minimally processed?” Let’s dive into some definitions set by the NOVA classification system, which was developed by a team of researchers in Brazil.

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed- plant or animal foods in their natural state without any alterations. Minimal processing may include things like washing or coring. Examples of unprocessed or minimally processed food include apples, celery, eggs, brown rice, and raw ground beef.
  • Processed- foods manufactured by industry with a few added ingredients, such as salt, oil or sugar to preserve or make them more palatable. Canned tuna, salted nuts, cheese and fresh bread are examples.
  • Ultra-processed- foods made mostly from substances extracted from other foods, have many added ingredients, including colors and preservatives, and are highly manipulated. Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, candies, hot dogs, breakfast cereals, and commercially processed pizzas and dinners.

Unfortunately, almost 60% of what most adults eat is ultra-processed food, and it makes up nearly 70% of what most kids eat. These foods have very little nutrient value but often contribute to our intake of excess calories, added sugars, saturated fats and sodium. A growing body of research has linked high consumption of ultra-processed foods with poor outcomes, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

It’s important to note, that not everything on the ultra-processed list is considered unhealthy. Flavored yogurts and packaged whole grain bread, for example, certainly have a place in the healthy food category. However, most ultra-processed foods are ones we already know are not good for us so why do we continue to consume them? I’m sure you’ve already answered that: they’re available, shelf-stable, convenient, tasty and often cheap. While these benefits are nice, our society has taken ultra-processed foods a bit too far, and It’s time to cut back.

Plan to cook more meals at home, utilizing more whole foods. Choose plenty of foods that don’t need ingredient labels, like fruits, vegetables and dried beans. When buying canned or packaged foods, opt for those in which a whole food is the main ingredient, with little to no added sugars or salt. You’re likely not to cut out all ultra-processed food, but you can swing the pendulum to favor more whole, fresh foods!


Berg, S. (2022). What doctors wish patients knew about ultraprocessed foods. American Medical Association.
NOVA Food Classification System (2018).

About the Author


Jenna Smith is a Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Smith uses her experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist to deliver impactful information and cutting-edge programs to Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties and beyond.