How Do I Recognize Ultra-Processed Foods?

March 21, 2020

In a previous article, I mentioned that ultra-processed products account for almost half of the caloric intake in many countries and that they are harmful to your health. Following this article, a reader asked me how they could recognize ultra-processed foods. They wondered if tofu and sweetened fruit yogurts could be considered ultra-processed foods in the same way as chicken nuggets for example.

It is recognized that in our daily diet it is important to focus on fresh foods such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, nuts and seeds, legumes, rice, pasta, couscous, flour, milk, plain yogurt without sugar, herbs, garlic…

In order to extend the lifespan and organoleptic characteristics of these fresh foods, processing techniques can be used by manufacturers, such as the addition of sugar, salt or oil. It is in this way that foods become processed. In this category we find items such as: canned foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish…), smoked meats and fish, tofu, bakery breads, cheeses, nut and seed butters.

This category needs to be differentiated from ultra-processed foods, which also contain added ingredients such as sugar, oil and salt but in addition also include ingredients that are not usually found in our pantry such as food additives (preservatives, dyes, thickeners, artificial flavors, gelling agents, emulsifiers, sweeteners, flavour enhancers…), hydrogenated oils, protein isolates, high fructose corn syrups…

The best way to recognize an ultra-processed food is to pay close attention to the list of ingredients. If it is long, contains unpronounceable ingredients, or if the ingredients are not ones that you might have in your pantry, then it is definitely an ultra-processed product. Also, beware of misleading packaging and advertising. Some ultra-processed foods are self-defined by the manufacturers as being ‘healthy, natural, sugar-free, organic’ etc.

Among the list of ultra-processed foods we find the majority of the following items: cookies, cakes, soft bars, chocolate treats, cakes, sweets, sugary drinks, energy drinks, sweetened dairy products, sweet yogurts, industrial breads, crackers, chips, salty snacks, breakfast cereals, flavoured oats, frozen meals (pizzas, chicken nuggets, pasta…), sausages, cold meats, instant soups, sauces and dressings, sugar substitutes, sweeteners… As you can see, the list is long!

In order to respond to our reader’s question, we can therefore see that tofu is a processed food and can be included as part of a balanced diet, whereas sweetened fruit yogurt and chicken nuggets are part of the ultra-processed foods and therefore need to be avoided. It would be a good idea, for example, to replace industrial yogurt with plain yogurt and your own added fresh fruit with a little maple syrup, and to replace chicken nuggets with a homemade recipe, such as Chicken Cutlets Milanese.

If you care about your health, excluding ultra-processed products from your meals is essential. Planning out your meals for the week, buying food and cooking at home is the best advice to follow. Don’t be discouraged: with a little motivation and good organization everything is possible. In addition, we are here to support you in this process.



Jennifer Morzier
Jennifer is a Registered Dietitian graduated from the University of Montreal in December 2018 and is a member of the Ordre professionnel des diététistes du Québec (OPDQ). She believes that the quality of our food choices has a direct impact on our health and energy level. Her goal? To help people improve the quality of what they put in their plates, for their better well-being and greater pleasure.

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