Just how bad are ultraprocessed foods? Here are 5 things to know

Just how bad are ultraprocessed foods? Here are 5 things to know
  • PublishedJune 2, 2024

When you open a bag of nacho-flavored chips or cheese puffs, you probably know that you’re about to indulge in an unhealthy snack.

The dead giveaway? It’s the yummy, spicy, cheesy, neon-orange dust that coats each morsel and gets all over your fingers. Ditto for a frozen pizza and chicken nuggets.

But what about a granola bar? An applesauce pouch? String cheese? Flavored yogurt? Surely these foods — snacks that millions of children and adults eat every day — are not bad, right?

Well, it turns out that many fall under the category of ultraprocessed foods — depending on their exact ingredients. This type of food has been studied a lot lately, and the results aren’t great.

Ultraprocessed foods represent a relatively new way of categorizing foods. Proposed in 2009 by researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, the system, called NOVA, is based not on what kind of food it is — meat, grains, vegetables, etc. — but rather on how processed it is.

NOVA separates foods into four groups, starting with natural and minimally processed foods in the first category to ultraprocessed foods, which use industrial formulations and manufacturing techniques, in the fourth.

“My operating definition for ultraprocessed (foods) is you can’t make it in your home kitchen because you don’t have the machinery and you don’t have the ingredients,” food policy expert Dr. Marion Nestle told CNN Medical Correspondent Meg Tirrell on the Chasing Life podcast recently. Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, emerita, at New York University.


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