What is ultra-processed food?

fast food

Ultra-processed food can become the go-to diet for people on the run, as they sacrifice nutrition for convenience.

A recent study found that a diet high in ultra-processed food raises the risk of colorectal cancer in men. And in another study, researchers determined that adults with the lowest-quality diet who eat the highest amount of ultra-processed food have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and death.

But what is ultra-processed food?

Take a walk down any grocery aisle, and you’ll likely see plenty of ultra-processed foods.

“We might think of it as a novelty-type food—something that doesn’t resemble how a food might look in nature,” says Kate Zeratsky, a Mayo Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist.

Think of food as three simple categories. Unprocessed, whole foods are things like fresh fruits and vegetables, rice, meat, and eggs. Processed food covers a wide gamut and includes cheeses, canned vegetables with added salt, canned fruit with added sugar and meat preserved with salt. And ultra-processed foods can have added colors, sugars, salts and preservatives that add no nutritional value.

“These foods probably don’t represent whole types of foods,” says Zeratsky. “They probably have a different appearance, and an example might be a cheese curl.”

Others? Snack cakes, chicken nuggets, soda, chips, frozen dinners, the list goes on. Convenient and palatable? Yes. Nutritious? Not so much.

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