What are ultra-processed foods?

Most of the foods and drinks the average American consumes may be making them sick. 

So-called ultra-processed foods can be harmful to your health, according to study after study. The most recent one says several categories of these foods are particularly hazardous: certain ready-to-eat meat-, poultry-, and seafood-based products, sugary and artificially sweetened drinks, dairy-based desserts and certain breakfast items. 

These are familiar foods – ice cream, snack bars, frozen meals and salad dressing, cereal, baking mixes and soda, to name just a few. Many are often popular as kids’ snacks. And Americans are eating a lot of them.

Experts agree that foods containing certain ingredients – such as artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, thickeners, stabilizers, emulsifiers, gums and artificial sweeteners – are the hallmarks of ultra-processed food. Another shared characteristic is they’re hard to resist. 

Health harms

Research shows that ultra-processed foods are connected to a range of health problems. 

Obesity is chief among them. Rates of obesity in the U.S. and globally have skyrocketed in tandem with the rising consumption of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods have also been associated with other metabolic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes.

Heart disease and cancer, among other conditions, have been linked to ultra-processed foods. One study showed that the people who ate and drank the most of these items had a 50 percent higher risk of depression than those consuming the least.

One underlying problem with ultra-processed foods is the sugar, fat and salt they typically contain. Another is the presence of chemicals that in part define the foods as ultra-processed: industrial, lab-made ingredients, including potentially harmful food additives, such as artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors. 

More than half of U.S. consumption – and rising

The health problems associated with ultra-processed foods are likely to continue so long as Americans keep consuming them at the current pace.

The U.S. consumes more ultra-processed foods than any other industrialized country. These foods make up more than half the typical adult diet in this nation – and rising. In less than two decades, consumption went up from 54 percent of calories in 2001 to 57 percent in 2018.

This type of food is responsible for two-thirds of kids’ and teens’ calories – 67 percent in 2018, up from 61 percent in 1999. 

Experts say ultra-processed food and drinks trick people into eating more of them than they want – that the products are engineered to evoke a desire to consume more, especially soda. One study argues they prompt an addiction-like response, much the way people respond to nicotine and alcohol. 

Inequitable consumption 

But sometimes ultra-processed foods are the most affordable, easiest access choice. In many communities of color and neighborhoods of people living on less income, highly processed food is more accessible than unprocessed, whole foods and fresh produce.

These inequities in turn give rise to disparities in health outcomes. Black, Latino and Asian American people experience higher rates of the many health harms associated with consumption of ultra-processed foods.  

Economically underprivileged neighborhoods – those with fewer healthy food options – are most exposed to convenience stores and fast food restaurants, hubs of ultra-processed foods. Because of a history of systemic racism, the same is also true for many neighborhoods made up primarily of people of color.

Dollar stores too by and large sell ultra-processed foods, not fresh produce and other whole foods. They have become notorious as ready sources of these foods – and their number has skyrocketed in recent years. There are 35,000 of them in the U.S., counting the stores owned by just two companies. In what has been called “supermarket redlining,” these stores are especially prevalent in rural areas, communities of color and communities living on lower incomes. 

Studies show that the presence of stores with this abundance of ultra-processed foods harm communities’ chances of attracting traditional grocery stores, which put healthier foods closer at hand – though still often inaccessible, since they may cost more.

Regulatory state of play

It should not be left to consumers to shop their way out of this problem. But slow action by the federal government has led to that situation. Agencies have failed to protect consumers: Since 2000, almost all food chemicals – 99 percent – have been approved by the chemical industry, not the Food and Drug Administration.

For the moment, petitions to the FDA asking it to ban certain food chemicals, filed by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, including EWG, are under review. The chemicals include the additives Red No. 3, titanium dioxide in food, bisphenol A and butylated hydroxyanisole as well as cancer-causing substances used to process food – benzene and ethylene dichloride, methylene chloride and trichloroethylene. The presence of these chemicals, among many others, is a signature of ultra-processed foods.

In the absence of federal regulations, states are taking action. 

In March, a bill banning six harmful food dyes and titanium dioxide in public schools was introduced in California. The bill is co-sponsored by EWG and Consumer Reports.

This bill comes on the heels of a new Golden State law banning state-wide the manufacture, distribution or sale of food containing the chemicals Red Dye No. 3, propylparaben, brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate. It was also co-sponsored by EWG and Consumer Reports.

California has long been a bellwether state, but 10 others – including Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania – are also looking to limit consumption of these chemicals and others in ultra-processed food. More states will likely soon follow suit.

And the Department of Agriculture 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines, under development now, may address processing rather than nutrition only. But the guidelines may have  a single focus: How are dietary patterns that include varying amounts of ultra-processed foods consumed linked to growth, body composition and risk of obesity? 

The guidelines won’t be released until next year. 

How to lower your consumption of ultra-processed food

Who doesn’t want a little junk food from time to time? It can be a treat that shouldn’t cause major health problems. The key is to avoid the health consequences that can come from consuming too much of it. You can: 

  • Eat primarily foods that are less processed, such as whole grains, beans and legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables
  • If you choose to eat ultra-processed foods, do so in moderation. 
  • If you buy packaged foods, choose organic whenever possible – they’re made with fewer harmful ingredients, according to peer-reviewed EWG research
  • Study nutritional labels to find out what’s in the foods you want to buy. The fewer ingredients listed on the label, the less processed the food. If there are more than one or two ingredients you can’t identify, the product is likely ultra-processed and contains potentially harmful chemicals.
  • Beware front-of-packaging marketing language like “healthy.” The FDA studied front-of-packaging labeling, consulting focus groups and reviewing research on the issue. It has said it would propose a rule this summer providing guidance on this issue, but it’s not clear when or even if that will happen. For now, companies can use whatever language they want on front-of-package labeling, including using green packaging and graphics to hint at a higher nutritional value than a product merits.
  • Consult Food Scores, EWG’s searchable database of more than 80,000 foods, to learn more about the products you buy and their ingredients. Products are rated on the basis of ingredient, nutrition and processing concerns.

These foods don’t announce themselves as ultra-processed, but the ingredients label can inform you. And don’t be fooled: Some so-called healthy foods may well fit the description.

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