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The Difference Between Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods and Their Harmful Effects

Processed and ultra-processed foods are a huge part of our diets today, but what exactly is the difference between them? The term “ultra-processed” refers to food that has been highly modified through industrial processing methods, containing a variety of industrial food substances and cosmetic additives. From soft drinks and confectionery to packaged foods we assume are healthy, ultra-processed foods are everywhere.[0]

The classification of ultra-processed foods is determined by NOVA, an organization that divides foods into four categories. These categories include food substances such as processed proteins and fibers, carbohydrates, syrups, and hydrogenated oils, as well as bulking, aerating, and foaming processes.[1] Around 60% of the food found in our supermarkets is made up of ultra-processed items.[2]

But what makes ultra-processed foods bad for us?[3] Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia.[3] However, studies that investigate the correlation between ultra-processed foods and health outcomes often leave more questions than answers. To understand the risks associated with these foods, it is important to compare similar foods and draw conclusions on the effects of the processing itself.[3]

In the era of ultra-processing, food has become more efficient, accessible, and convenient than ever before. While this has led to a variety of tastes and textures, it has also led to uniquely harmful effects on our bodies, contributing to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems.

So, while processed food can refer to just about any type of food preparation, it’s the heavily processed, packaged food that is the most unhealthy and should be avoided if possible.[4] If you’re looking to make healthier choices, try sticking to fresh and minimally processed foods.

0. “8 everyday foods you might not realise are ultra processed – and how to spot them” The Conversation, 1 Feb. 2023,

1. “What ups diabetes risk? Processed foods like instant noodles, energy bars and drinks harm your body” The Indian Express, 1 Feb. 2023,

2. “It delivers a taste bomb of pure pleasure, but ultraprocessed food is killing us” The Irish Times, 30 Jan. 2023,

3. “Let's Stop Calling Foods ‘Ultra-Processed'” Lifehacker, 2 Feb. 2023,

4. “You Should Think Twice About Microwaving Processed Meats” Daily Meal, 5 Feb. 2023,

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