Everyday foods you might not realise are ultra processed – and how to spot them

Eight foods you may not realize are ultra-processed

Ultra-processed isn’t just another name for junk – even foods like soft drinks, sweets and chips are ultra-processed. There are many packaged foods that we normally think of as healthy that are ultra-processed.

1. Breakfast cereal

Many breakfast cereals and drinks marketed as healthy are ultra-processed. It can contain maltodextrin, processed protein and fiber, and color. Oats, on the other hand, contain only one ingredient: oats!

2. Protein bars and balls and muesli

Despite the healthy hype, most are ultra-processed, containing processed fiber and protein, invert sugars (sugars modified through industrial processes) and non-caloric sweeteners.

3. Plant-based ‘milk’

Many dairy alternatives contain emulsifiers, vegetable gums and flavors. Not all brands are ultra-processed so check the ingredients list. Some soy milk contains only water, soybeans, oil and salt.

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4. Bread

Some packaged breads contain emulsifiers, modified starch (starch altered through industrial methods) and vegetable gums – usually plastic-wrapped, sliced ​​and cheaper bread. Fresh bread, on the other hand, is rarely ultra-processed.

5. Yogurt

Flavored yogurts often contain additives such as thickeners, non-caloric sweeteners or flavors. Opt for plain yogurt instead.

6. Supply of food and sauce

Prepared pasta and stir-fry sauces usually contain ingredients such as thickeners, flavor enhancers and dyes. But simple sauces you can make at home with ingredients like canned tomatoes, vegetables, garlic and herbs are minimally processed.

7. Processed meat

Packaged cold meats may have emulsifiers, modified starches, thickeners and added fiber – making them ultra-processed. Replace packaged processed meats with alternatives such as cold roast beef or chicken.

8. Margarine

The way margarine and non-dairy spreads are made (by hydrogenating vegetable oils) and the additives they contain, such as emulsifiers and colorings, make them ultra-processed foods – unlike butter, which is basically cream and a little salt.

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But are all ultra-processed foods bad?

Some types of ultra-processed foods may seem healthier than others, have fewer industrial ingredients or be lower in sugar. But this is not necessarily less dangerous to our health. We know Australians consume up to 42 per cent of their energy from ultra-processed foods and the cumulative effect of industrial ingredients on the overall diet is unknown.

Also, when you consume ultra-processed foods, you may be substituting nutritious fresh foods or meals from your diet. So, cutting back on ultra-processed foods as much as possible is the way to transition to a healthier and more sustainable diet. Although not comprehensive, there are online databases that rate specific products to guide food choices.

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Supermarkets are dominated by ultra-processed foods, so it’s hard to avoid them completely. And sometimes choices are limited by availability, allergies or dietary intolerances. We can all make positive changes to our diet by choosing less processed foods. But governments can also legislate to make minimally processed foods more available and affordable, while discouraging the purchase and consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Sarah Dickie is a PhD Candidate in Public Health Nutrition, Deakin University; Julie Woods is Honorary Associate Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence is Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University; and Priscila Machado is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University.



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