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I often read articles talking about the risks of "ultraprocessed" food. Here is an example article from NPR.

On the one hand, there are foods which are obviously not ultraprocessed: plain fruits and vegetables. And there are other things which are obviously ultraprocessed, such as a box of instant pudding.

What about everything in between? The above article uses "highly refined breads" as an example of ultraprocessed foods which are "abundant in our food supply." Where is the threshold? Here are examples:

  1. Wonder bread ("obviously" ultraprocessed)
  2. Whole wheat wonder bread (does the wheat fix it?)
  3. Home-made white bread (is white flour ultraprocessed?)
  4. Home-made wheat bread (is flour itself ultraprocessed?)
  5. Home-made foccacia (does olive oil make bread ultraprocessed?)
  6. Home-made brioche (does sugar and butter make it ultraprocessed?)

I could go on: my butcher making and selling sausage; a frozen breakfast sausage link; a can of vienna sausage; a pre-made spice blend for making sausage. How would I reason about this? Olive oil, vegetable oil. Fast food fried chicken vs a farm-to-table restaurant's fried chicken? The list goes on.

Given a food item or ingredient, how can I reason about its processed-ness?

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  • 7
    The book "The very boring diet" noted the ambiguity a long time ago and introduced a better term: Industrialised food that does not indicate the amount of processing, but the amount of additives and all the efforts with chemistry and refining to extend the shelf life and marketability in a complex distribution chain.
    – FluidCode
    May 13 at 8:12
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    As mentioned, this is hard to answer without a common definition of "processed-ness". Maybe you could add the reasoning behind your question - is this about health-issues of said foods? Is it about deciding what to eat yourself? Is it a more scientific question of how a society should handle this to protect the population?
    – AnoE
    May 13 at 10:41
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    "Ultra-processed" is as well defined a term as "super food". Only one is the villain, one is the hero. Effectively there is no such thing as either, so there's not much point trying to nail the definition down.
    – AJFaraday
    May 13 at 14:29
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    Sure - the reason for my question is that, if there is evidence that certain kinds of foods are are to be avoided or moderated, then I'd like to make changes to the way I shop and eat while I'm young :) However, the fact that there isn't a consensus on the definition of ultra-processed, or one that is relatable to a layman, makes this challenging. Thus my question: what might I look for when I'm shopping? What might I shift to home-made vs store-bought, or where should I invest in different products (bakery bread vs grocery store bread.)
    – poundifdef
    May 13 at 15:30
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    Gentle reminder before this drifts off: health discussions and nutritional advice are off topic here.
    – Stephie
    May 13 at 18:40

3 Answers 3

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You can't, for the simple reason that "ultraprocessed" is not a technical term with a scientific definition. It is, instead, a hyperbolic term used to make articles sound more frightening and authoritative. In each instance, the working definition is entirely the opinion of the article author.

This may change in the future. The NOVA group has proposed a medical defintion for ultra-processed foods. If their definition becomes fully developed and is then generally adopted by organizations and dietitians, then you would have a testable definition. However, they are still a long ways from having a useful definition, per the discussion about their classifications of bread:

It is important to note that the developers of NOVA specifically addressed the inclusion of bread as an ultra-processed food, concluding thus: “Bread by itself is fairly energy-dense and almost all bread now produced and consumed is grossly degraded and palatable only as a vehicle for what are usually fatty or sugary and also salted spreads, fillings and toppings” (14). No objective data are presented to support these views. Bread has a defined nutritional composition based on whether it is white, wholemeal, wheaten meal, rye, and the like. No objective evidence exists to suggest that processing changes the nutritional composition of these individual categories of bread; nor do data exist on how different production methods might influence any satiating properties of specific bread types.

As such, I do not suggest basing your own diet on labels of "ultra-processed", as such labelling right now seems to be wholly arbitrary.

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    @poundifdef while we understand your personal goal, this site is extremely hesitant about any kind of health or nutrition related advice, and for good reason - the “established” advice has changed so often in the past with new research and all that. The community has decided to limit the scope to a) food safety topics and those follow the guidelines of established authorities and b) safely measurable and quantifiable facts. While there seems to be emerging scientific evidence re. “ultra processed food” (yes, I follow the debate as well), it’s still very much unclear.
    – Stephie
    May 13 at 18:54
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Ironically, table 1 of the paper FuzzyChef referenced provides a list of definitions. The definitions from 2014 onward do contain actionable information you can use to try and determine whether a particular food or ingredient is "ultraprocessed" at least according to those definitions.

While those definitions (or other proposed definitions) may not be bulletproof, I don't think it's reasonable to say that the category is totally arbitrary unless and until there's a single broadly accepted definition, particularly for someone who's just looking to make dietary choices.

Imprecise definitions should be the target of appropriate scrutiny, but so should attempts to run the clock on public action with hand-wringing about the policy implications of a proposed definition's imprecision, particularly when those papers contain cartoonish disclosures like the one in FuzzyChef's link:

"Author disclosures: MJG does ad hoc consultancy work with Nestlé, chairs the International Breakfast Research Consortium funded by Cereal Partners Worldwide, leads a project on the developing food serving sizes for use in the EU funded by Mondelez, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola, and is on the board of directors of ILSI Europe."

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  • Welcome to SA, @ammkrn! What would make your answer a lot better would be if, instead of just referring to/debating my answer, you provided links/examples of definitions that the OP could work with, since that seems to be what they're actually seeking. That might cause them to choose your answer instead of mine.
    – FuzzyChef
    May 14 at 0:08
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The term "ultra-processed" does not have a precise definition (as mentioned in the other answers). Because of that, when doing groceries it is not very helpful to use this term just to decide whether you should buy it. It might be more helpful to understand why processed foods are criticized. Processed foods often:

  1. Remove fibre and add sugar (=higher glycemic index)
  2. Add loads of salt
  3. Add conservatives and flavorants which, some consider unhealthy
  4. Do not contain a significant amount of other nutrients (healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. )
  5. Are very calorie dense

According to these 5 items, the wonder bread, self-made white bread and self-made brioche clearly fall under processed, while the other ones are debatable.

This post is based on my personal opinion and is not backed by research.

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