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Processed vs. ultra-processed foods: What’s the difference?

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Think all processed foods are unhealthy? Contrary to popular belief, they’re not. For example, the baby carrots you eat as a healthy snack are considered processed foods.

What constitutes a processed food, you ask? Although definitions of “processed foods” may vary slightly, anything that changes the fundamental nature of an agricultural product – canning, heating, freezing, dicing, hydrating, etc. – results in a processed food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some processed foods can be good for you (e.g., frozen fruits and vegetables, canned fish, whole-grain breakfast cereals) while others aren’t.

It’s more the ultra-processed foods you need to limit. These are your “snacks, drinks, ready meals, and many other products created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little if any intact food,” the American Heart Association says. Examples include packaged chips, soft drinks and candy. These foods can lead to higher calorie consumption and weight gain, researchers from the National Institutes of Health concluded in a recent study.

So, what can health-conscious consumers do? The association has some suggestions:

  • Choose whole foods that have gone through a minimum amount of industrial processing. Bagged spinach and cut vegetables are examples of these.
  • When choosing packaged bread, skip white bread in favor of something with lots of whole grains.
  • When making a sandwich, go with a lean protein source: a nut butter or an avocado.
  • Be aware of and read the nutrition information on food package labels. “Choose products without a lot of sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats,” the association says.

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