Is That Food Ultra-Processed? How to Tell

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Many foods come in ultra-processed and less-processed versions, but you can learn to spot the differences

In the grocery store, shoppers wade through rows and rows of ultra-processed foods. But you can find less-processed versions of yogurt, snack bars, and other favorite items—if you know what to look for.

There is growing concern from nutrition researchers, public health experts, and parents about the amount of ultra-processed foods in the American diet. Recent research has linked diets high in ultra-processed foods to increased risks of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

To identify ultra-processed foods, nutrition researchers say to check the label and look for ingredients that you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen.

To make ultra-processed products, companies usually break down whole foods and chemically modify them to create ingredients you don’t find in nature, like high-fructose corn syrup and soy protein isolate, derived from soybeans. These foods also often include ingredients that enhance a food’s flavor, color, or texture, such as the emulsifier soy lecithin. If a food has one or more of these ingredients, they are generally considered ultra-processed, according to a widely used classification system created by scientists in Brazil.

Food companies dispute the idea that their products are unhealthy and say that packaged foods are convenient and affordable.

We compared ultra-processed and less-processed versions of several common foods, including oatmeal and crackers, using the classification system created by the researchers in Brazil. Christina A. Roberto, director of the Psychology of Eating and Consumer Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, also reviewed the selections.

Here’s what we found.

A Chobani spokesperson said, “The natural flavors and functional ingredients…extend the shelf life, and improve the stability of our naturally-nutrient dense Greek yogurts.”

A spokesperson from Mondelēz International, which makes Ritz and Triscuit brand products, says they are “intentional and mindful” in how they make their products and provide a range of choices for different consumer needs.

A Breyers spokesperson said it offers many flavors of ice cream and frozen desserts to meet customer preferences.

“KIND Protein Crunchy Peanut Butter offers protein from real food with whole peanuts as the No. 1 ingredient,” a Kind Snacks spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for PepsiCo, which owns Quaker, declined to comment.