• Nov 2023(updated on Jan 2024)

What are ultra-processed foods? Common food examples

What are ultra-processed foods? Common food examples
  • Processed foods are a staple in the modern diet, but not all processed foods are created equal.
  • Learn the differences among processed foods and why you should avoid ultra-processed foods in particular.
  • You can make some simple swaps to cut back on ultra-processed foods and increase your consumption of whole, natural foods, which will benefit your overall health. 
Much of the modern diet we eat includes processed foods. Although it’s common advice to avoid processed foods in favour of whole, natural foods, it’s important to note that not all processed foods are created equal and that some processed foods can have a place in a healthy diet.

We often turn to processed foods for a number of reasons, whether out of convenience, cost, and a long shelf life, or just personal preference. Many of the foods we buy at the supermarket have undergone some level of processing, and it’s a good idea to be aware of what goes into the food you eat. 

Here, we break down the differences among the types of processed foods, why you should limit ultra-processed foods, and how to make the best choices for yourself the next time you hit the supermarket. 

What are ultra-processed foods? 

Put simply, processed food has been altered from its natural state. For example, an apple picked off a tree is a whole food found in its natural state. When a food company takes apples and mashes them with sugar, water, and other additives to make store-bought applesauce, that's a processed food.

“Processed food” is a broad term that encompasses the various changes food undergoes before it reaches store shelves, and there are distinctions between processed and ultra-processed foods. It’s useful to understand the degree of processing when making food choices and to understand the health implications of consuming too much ultra-processed food.

One way to evaluate the level of processing of food is with the NOVA system, which classifies foods according to the extent and purpose of their processing (1) This system was developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo in 2009 and is widely used by health professionals and public health organisations. The NOVA system takes into account the extent and purpose of food processing rather than solely focussing on the nutritional content. We’ll be using the NOVA system to help explain the differences among processed foods: 

NOVA1: Natural or minimally processed foods

These foods are in their natural state, or foods that have undergone basic processing, such as removing inedible elements, freezing, grinding, pasteurising, or filtering to make them edible or safe, but do not have any added ingredients. These are foods you would prepare and cook at home: raw and frozen fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, milk, and eggs.

NOVA2: Culinary ingredients

NOVA2 foods are single-ingredient foods derived from NOVA1 foods but processed slightly to be used in cooking. These foods are typically used to season or cook with, and you wouldn’t normally consume these foods on their own. Some examples include honey, olive oil, butter (from milk), flour (from wheat), vinegars, salt, and spices.

NOVA3: Processed foods

These foods are made up of a few ingredients – a combination of groups 1 and 2. They have been modified, typically by adding salt, oil, or sugar, to make them taste better or last longer. These include cheese, fresh bread, jam, tinned vegetables and fish, and smoked and cured meats. 

NOVA4: Ultra-processed foods

These are made with substances that have been extracted from food or created in a lab. NOVA4 ultra-processed foods contain many ingredients, few or none of which come from group 1 foods, and are never or rarely used in kitchens. Manufactured to be convenient and ready to eat with a long shelf life, these foods are high in additives, colours and preservatives, dense in energy, but low in nutrients. (2) These food products tend to feature a long ingredient list and often include unfamiliar additives and substances.

Examples of ultra-processed foods

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Packaged snacks like crisps, snack bars, sweets, chocolate
  • Instant noodles
  • Oven pizzas
  • Ice cream
  • Ready meals
  • Margarines and other dairy spreads
  • Packaged desserts
  • Condiments

There will be versions of some foods that fall under NOVA3 rather than NOVA4, for instance natural Greek yoghurt versus fruit yoghurts with sweeteners and colourings; natural meats versus processed meat slices; or fresh bread from natural ingredients versus industrialised bread products with preservatives.

What’s the problem with ultra-processed foods?

When foods undergo processing, not only does it alter the physical form, but the nutritional profile can also change. This sometimes translates to fewer nutrients and more additives, giving your body less of what it needs to thrive. 

As ultra-processed foods are often high in salt, sugar, and other additives to enhance the flavour, colour, or texture of foods, they can be detrimental to your health for many reasons. (2)

To start, these additives are designed to make the food hyper-palatable, which increases the risk of overeating (3). In fact, one study showed that people who consumed ultra-processed foods ate on average 500 more calories a day compared to those who ate primarily unprocessed foods. (8) And eating ultra-processed foods in excess over a long period of time can lead to weight management concerns and associated health issues, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. (4)

Ultra-processed foods are often energy dense but low in important nutrients, especially fibre. (6) If someone’s diet is made up of mostly ultra-processed foods, they may be lacking the vitamins and minerals they need for healthy bodily function.

Undereating fibre in particular can result in a lower consumption of prebiotics and fewer bowel movements, which can further contribute to bloating and poor gut health. (4) 

In addition, dietary fibre helps keep glucose levels balanced and can help to lower your risk of heart disease. (5) Unfortunately, most people under-consume fibre.

Studies across several countries have shown that increases in ultra-processed foods are linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. (2) 

Moreover, ultra-processed foods are often digested more quickly, which can lead to more rapid glucose spikes, especially when eaten in excess. Not only can a glucose spike followed by a crash leave you feeling sluggish, hungry, and irritable, frequent glucose spikes have been linked to health complications including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. (9, 10)

In general, the less processing that a food undergoes, the better. Although many ultra-processed foods contain unhealthy fats, sugars, and artificial additives, there are other options with fewer ingredients, more balanced macronutrients, and enriched with vitamins and minerals.

Not all processed foods (including ultra-processed foods) need to be eliminated entirely. They can have a place in a well-rounded diet if consumed in moderation, especially since these foods are often a convenient and cost-effective option.  

Ultimately, understanding the nutritional content of ultra-processed foods and how they affect you is important in deciding whether they are a good choice for you and your goals. Using a continuous glucose monitor like Lingo provides insight into how these foods impact your glucose, or blood sugar, and what effects this has on you both in the short- and long-term.  

How can I avoid ultra-processed foods?

As mentioned, you don’t need to avoid ultra-processed foods entirely; sometimes they are the only option available or are helpful when you’re short on time. However, swapping ultra-processed foods for more nutritious whole foods is a better choice for your overall health. 

We often turn to ultra-processed foods out of convenience, but planning ahead can keep you prepared and help you make more nutritious choices. Weekly planning and batch cooking can transform homemade meals into easy-to-grab and healthy options. Prepare your weekly meals and shopping list in advance and make a plan for when you hit the grocery store to steer clear of the aisles containing ultra-processed foods. This will not only streamline your choices, but also help you stick to whole foods that will benefit your overall health. 

Making snacks at home will decrease your need to buy packaged foods and help keep your glucose levels steady. Cut up a large batch of vegetables crudités and keep them in the fridge for a few days for when you need them. Craving crisps? Try roasting chickpeas with olive oil, sea salt, and paprika for a nutritious option. 

When you do need to buy a quick snack, check the ingredient list. Prioritise foods with shorter ingredient lists and foods in their natural state, and watch out for added sugars like dextrose, fructose, maltose, or sucrose that can spike your blood sugar.

In general, awareness is key when it comes to understanding ultra-processed foods and how your body responds to different foods. Lingo gives you real time insights into how your glucose levels respond to your food choices and lifestyle factors.  

Replacements for common ultra-processed foods that are low in refined fats, salt, and sugar, and can help keep your glucose steady:

  • Swap white pasta with a store-bought tomato sauce for zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash with a homemade tomato sauce and a source of protein (like tuna, chicken, or tofu).
  • Substitute sugary soda drinks with sparkling water infused with fresh slices of cucumber, lemon, or berries.
  • Instead of eating a frozen ready-to-eat meal, make a quick vegetable stir-fry with a fresh protein source (like salmon, chicken, or pork), a complex carbohydrate like quinoa (which you can batch cook in advance), and a quick homemade sauce of low-sodium soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and lime.

A final word from Lingo

Processed foods have become a staple in most diets due to their convenience, long shelf life, and palatability. However, it’s important to differentiate between processed and ultra-processed foods to see how they can fit into a healthy diet. Ultra-processed foods, which are industrially formulated with multiple ingredients, often lack nutritional value while being energy dense. When eaten in excess, these foods can lead to health complications. 

Having a plan is key: map out meals in advance, batch cook, and prepare homemade snacks to avoid the convenience of ultra-processed foods. By reading labels and using systems like Lingo, which use a continuous glucose monitor, you can gain insight into how certain foods impact your glucose levels, helping you make the best choices for you and your overall health.

January 23, 2024



1. Braesco V, Souchon I, Sauvant P, Haurogné T, Maillot M, Féart C, & Darmon N (2022). Ultra-processed foods: how functional is the NOVA system? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(9), 1245–1253. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-022-01099-1

2. Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac J, Louzada M, Rauber F, Khandpur N, Cediel G, Neri D, Martinez‐Steele E, Baraldi LG, & Jaime PC (2019). Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutrition, 22(5), 936–941. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980018003762 

3. Taneri PE, Wehrli F, Roa‐Díaz ZM, Itodo OA, Salvador D, Raeisi‐Dehkordi H, Bally L, Minder B, Jong JCK, Carmelli JL, Bano A, Glišić M, & Muka T (2022). Association between Ultra-Processed Food Intake and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 191(7), 1323–1335. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwac039

4. Atzeni A, Martínez MÁ, Babió N, Konstanti P, Tinahones FJ, Vioque J, Corella D, Fíto M, Vidal J, Moreno-Indias I, Pertusa-Martinez S, Álvarez-Sala A, Castañer O, Goday A, Damas-Fuentes M, Belzer C, Martínez‐González MA, Hu FB, & Salas‐Salvadó J (2022). Association between ultra-processed food consumption and gut microbiota in senior subjects with overweight/obesity and metabolic syndrome. Frontiers in Nutrition, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.976547 

5. Gupta S, Hawk T, Aggarwal A, & Drewnowski A (2019). Characterizing Ultra-Processed foods by energy density, nutrient density, and cost. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00070

6. Ioniță-Mîndrican C, Ziani K, Mititelu M, Oprea E, Neacșu SM, Moroșan E, Dumitrescu D, Roșca AC, Drăgănescu D, & Negrei C. (2022). Therapeutic Benefits and Dietary Restrictions of fiber intake: A State of the art review. Nutrients, 14(13), 2641. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14132641 

7. Kroker-Lobos MF, Mazariegos M, Guamuch M, & Ramírez‐Zea M (2022). Ultraprocessed Products as Food Fortification Alternatives: A Critical Appraisal from Latin America. Nutrients, 14(7), 1413. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14071413

8. Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, Cai H, Cassimatis T, Chen KY, Chung ST, Costa E, Courville A, Darcey V, Fletcher LA, Forde CG, Gharib AM, Guo J, Howard R, Joseph PV, McGehee S, Ouwerkerk R, Raisinger K, Rozga I, Stagliano M, Walter M, Walter PJ, Yang S, Zhou M. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):67-77.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008. Epub 2019 May 16. Erratum in: Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226. Erratum in: Cell Metab. 2020 Oct 6;32(4):690. PMID: 31105044; PMCID: PMC7946062. 

9. Jarvis PRE, Cardin JL, Nisevich-Bede PM, McCarter JP. Continuous glucose monitoring in a healthy population: understanding the post-prandial glycemic response in individuals without diabetes mellitus. Metabolism. 2023 Sep;146:155640.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/37356796/  

10. O'Keefe JH, Gheewala NM, O'Keefe JO. Dietary strategies for improving post-prandial glucose, lipids, inflammation, and cardiovascular health. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008 Jan 22;51(3):249-55.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18206731/

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