What Are “Ultra-Processed’ Foods and Why Are They So Bad For You?

What Are “Ultra-Processed’ Foods and Why Are They So Bad For You?

The Addictive and Unhealthy Properties of Ultra-Processed Foods.

Strictly speaking, most food that comes to our tables has been processed in some way; cleaning or cutting up food is technically a form of processing. The level of processing is important, because the more processed a food is, the less natural nutrients it retains. And when you start adding preservatives, sugar, and saturated fat, the nutritional profile of the food rapidly declines.

That is why, at SaladPower, all of our smoothies are made from organic vegetables sourced from farms that strictly adhere to sustainable, pesticide-free practices. You can taste the organic freshness in every sip!

We know that our products are not ultra-processed, but how are foods categorized as ‘unprocessed,’ ‘processed,’ and ‘ultra-processed’? And what exactly does ‘ultra-processed’ mean?

Classifying ‘Processed’ and ‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods

The processing of food has been around for centuries, but only recently have scientists revealed the true extent that processing methods affect public health. In 2009, to provide a uniform framework for understanding the effects of processed food, researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, created the Nova classification system. The Nova system has since been relied upon by researchers and public health officials worldwide to further our understanding of processed and ultra-processed foods.

The Nova system provides for four categories of foods based on the extent of processing. Carlos Augusto Monteiro, whose research laid the foundation of the Nova system, emphasized in his highly-influential 2010 commentary that, in an age when processed and ultra-processed foods are so pervasive, more attention needs to be paid to the level of processing in the foods we consume.[1]

“The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed,” Monteiro stated. “That is to say, the big issue is food processing – or, to be more precise, the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing.”

“Specifically, the public health issue is 'ultra-processing',” Monteiro concluded.[2]

On one end (the healthiest end) of the spectrum in the Nova system, in group 1, are unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Moving across the spectrum, you come to group 2, which encompasses processed culinary ingredients, which are typically free of additives but may contain added vitamins or minerals. Then, in group 3, you have your processed foods, which often contain additives to prolong shelf life. Finally, there is a fourth group that refers to ultra-processed products.

‘Ultra-Processed’ Definition(s) and Dangers

As Monteiro explains, ultra-processed foods often contain group 2 ingredients along with additives “to make them edible, palatable, and habit-forming.”[3] The specific definition of ‘ultra-processed’ foods has evolved since Monteiro introduced the classification system.[4] In some studies, the term has been used to suggest the addition of unhealthy ingredients (such as fats, sugars, preservatives, and salts), while in others the term’s meaning has been expanded to include foods created in a laboratory.[5] Still other research highlights that ultra-processed foods are characterized by the way they impact the public due to their convenience and palatability.[6]

Indeed, one of the evils of ultra-processed foods is that, not only do they lack the nutritional elements essential for a healthy diet, they are also engineered to get people addicted to them.

A 2023 study of the additives in ultra-processed foods goes so far as to suggest that they may be as addictive as smoking cigarettes.[7] The researchers noted that ultra-processed foods are designed and marketed to be so appealing to people that human behaviors associated with them may meet the criteria for substance use disorder.

Given their ubiquity and addictive qualities, it is paramount that we as individuals remain vigilant as to what we, our loved ones, and our communities at large choose to include in our diet. This is a key part of our mission at SaladPower: to provide the world with a highly nutritious, super convenient option for premium, organic vegetables. We hope to help you forgo ultra-processed foods in favor of our ultra-healthy, all-organic smoothies!


[1] WPHNA World Public Health Nutrition Association. (n.d.). Www.wphna.org. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from https://www.wphna.org/htdocs/2012_june_wn2_editorial.htm

[2]Gibney M. J. (2018). Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues. Current developments in nutrition, 3(2), nzy077. https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzy077

[3] Monteiro, C. A. (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public Health Nutrition, 12(5), 729–731. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1368980009005291

[4] Gibney M. J. (2018). Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues. Current developments in nutrition, 3(2), nzy077. https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzy077

[5] Costa Louzada, M. L., Martins, A. P., Canella, D. S., Baraldi, L. G., Levy, R. B., Claro, R. M., Moubarac, J. C., Cannon, G., & Monteiro, C. A. (2015). Ultra-processed foods and the nutritional dietary profile in Brazil. Revista de saude publica, 49, 38. https://doi.org/10.1590/S0034-8910.2015049006132

[6] Monteiro, C. A., Levy, R. B., Claro, R. M., Castro, I. R. R. de, & Cannon, G. (2010). A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 26(11), 2039–2049. https://doi.org/10.1590/s0102-311x2010001100005

[7] Gearhardt, A. N., Bueno, N. B., DiFeliceantonio, A. G., Roberto, C. A., Jiménez-Murcia, S., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2023). Social, clinical, and policy implications of ultra-processed food addiction. BMJ, 383, e075354. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj-2023-075354

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