Words – Ultra-Processed Foods

One thing about myself that I don’t tend to discuss at length is my dislike for the “health and nutrition” industry. Not because I believe it’s unimportant or irrelevant, but because it’s absolutely saturated with pseudo-scientific nonsense. My level of tolerance for these things is quite low and that me with a relatively hostile tone and approach to the subject.

One of those things that really gets me fired up are nebulous and poorly defined buzzwords. There a number of well established red flags, like “toxins” and “superfood.” This doesn’t make a claim immediately invalid, there are real toxins in the world, but in the context of health and nutrition its primary purpose is usually to sound sinister or wholesome so you’ll want to buy something. It’s the verbal equivalent of “infomercial” problems. Even if it’s valid, it can and will be co-opted and or perverted to sell you something.

So when I hear a word repeated at length in this context, I become wary of it quickly. “Ultra-processed” has recently found its way onto my “special high intensity term” list. Sure, I see it mentioned a lot in various contexts and studies and I even tend to agree with the general premise, but what does it even mean? Many different foods are processed. Most of the time I’d say that’s not even a bad thing. The question was, is there a specific definition of “ultra-processed” or is it a nebulous marketing term? It will always become the latter to some extent but, spoiler alert, there is a proper definition.

Before I get too much further into the weeds, many of us could substitute the phrase “junk food” for “ultra-processed food” and lose almost nothing in translation. On the same note, this really shouldn’t be news to anybody. I like to think that we all know what sort of things we should or shouldn’t be eating, but like me many of us choose to ignore it for a variety of reason.

The term itself has a somewhat longer history, but most of the studies I looked at were quoting a publication from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) which is part of/connected to the World Health Organization. If they weren’t quoting that publication directly, they were quoting a paper that was. I will provide a link to the document in question at the end for those that are curious.

In the document they suggest four general categories of food:

  • Unprocessed or Minimally Processed Foods
  • Processed Culinary Ingredients
  • Processed Foods
  • Ultra-Processed Food and Drink Products

PAHO (2015) P. 2

I won’t really get into the other categories here, though their definitions are actually more specific, if just as broad. There’s an “annex” at the end of the document that lists the specific definition of each one. “Ultra-processed” is defined as follows:

PAHO (2015) P. 59

Much of it is still quite vague, in my opinion, but I get the basic idea. The tilapia I made for dinner yesterday probably doesn’t qualify because it was just frozen raw fish. It wasn’t precooked, seasoned, or shaped. Just fish.

The frozen brussel sprouts and bacon I served with it, however, does. It’s a pre-prepared vegetable dish that’s “ready in minutes.” The doesn’t necessarily make it evil, but the point is that it would be healthier if I prepared the dish myself. The one I purchased was engineered to look good and taste good, and sometimes this comes at the expense of health. Lower nutrient values vs properly prepared sprouts, extra levels of sodium to help preserve it, and so on. By itself not really an issue, but if you consider that the fish is the exception rather than the norm, the problem does become a bit clear.

Nearly every dinner I prepare (and lunch I eat) contains or qualifies under this definition of “ultra-processed,” which isn’t just a marketing term. The research on this certainly leans in a specific direction. There should be less of it. Less “junk food,” what a novel concept.

I’m past my posting “deadline” and I could probably write an entirely different post about how, what, or why I should actually address this. I will plan to do so after I’ve given it some thought.

Y’all take care. Hopefully you learned something interesting, if not exactly new.


PAHO. 2015. Ultra-processed food and drink products in Latin America: Trends, impact on obesity, policy implications. Washington, DC: PAHO. https://iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/7699/9789275118641_eng.pdf

Hey, it’s Blaugust time! The goal is to simply promote and stimulate the blogging community by encouraging people of all skill levels and backgrounds to post. The official post can be found here and it’s never too late to start.

2 thoughts on “Words – Ultra-Processed Foods

  1. Some of those examples seem odd to me. “Carbonated drinks”, for example. I drink a lot of carbonated water. It’s water with carbon dioxide dissolved in it. To describe that as “ultra-processing” seems to stretch the language past breaking point. And anyway, even if it was a bona fide description, a brief googling of reputable healthcare sites all agree that, while health concerns have been raised over carbonated water, they are unfounded. In some cases, carbonated water is actually beneficial for the very issues it’s supposed to be bad for.

    “Chips”, in the sense of “french fries” is another odd example. Granted, the kind of “french fries” sold in fast food outlets bear very little ressemblance to any kind of food and do appear to be ultra-processed, but “chips” in the British meaning and “French fries” as they would be sold in France or Belgium are just deep-fried potatos. I’ll give you deep-frying isn’t a healthy way to cook anything and potato itself is hardly a health food, but to call frying slices of root vegetable in oil, particularly if the oil is a single-source vegetable product itself (I use olive oil for frying at home although it’s forty-five years since I deep-fried anything) again seems to be stretching the language to breaking point.

    My objections, though, are primarily linguistic. I don’t like the appropriation of the extreme qualifier “ultra”. It seems to me that “processed” would already cover this. I started trying to find the definition of “processed” food at PAHO, without success. Harvard School of Public Health, however, has some clear definitions of all the terms.I recommend that articel for a more nuanced view.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Personal side note, my actual carbonated drink intake is down significantly, but only as a way of decreasing my caffeine intake. There just wasn’t enough variety in the caffeine-free carbonated soda territory, so I drifted off to other non-carbonated drinks like sports drinks. It’s all artificially sweetened, so no change in calorie intake.

      I’ve thought about addressing the artificial sweetener question in a post as well, but more knowledgable and influential people than I have done so to no avail, so why open a can of worms on a topic I have already answered thoroughly for myself?

      Thanks for the link, I do find that take more appropriate. Here are the official definitions in that PAHO document: https://unidentifiedsignalsource.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/paho-food-group-definition.png

      I agree that the overall classification is rather muddy and unclear. I was having many of the same questions. Where do standard pasteurized milks fall? Un/min, despite meeting several of the listed requirements under ultra. As the Harvard article points out, yogurt is all over the place, and cheeses are spread around as well.

      I think there’s a helpful idea buried in there that’s been lost. The only real distinction I could draw, I think we can do using french fries/chips. A chopped and fried potato is only “processed.” A potato that’s been ground into paste and extruded into a fry-like shape would be “ultra-processed.” This isn’t consistent with the PAHO classification but makes more sense to me.

      Unfortunately, it’s such a gross generalization that it’s nearly useless. Is the actual nutritional value of the potato significantly altered in this process? It’s still potato, after all, and including preservatives isn’t by definition a bad thing.

      As a label, I don’t see a lot of real value. It’s helpful in the sense that it put me in a position of being a little more critical and thoughtful of what I’m serving, but it has a naturalistic fallacy feel to it that I can’t shake. Just because a food is not immediately identifiable with the source material doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. Really wish I’d have gotten to that point when I wrote this.

      In there end there aren’t really a lot of easy generalized answers. Regardless of how we categorize it, feeding my children “ultra-processed” brussel sprouts that they’ll actually eat is still a net positive because it provides variety they wouldn’t get otherwise.


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