What are Ultra-processed Foods? 

Ultra-processed food (UPFs) and “drink products are packaged formulations resulting from several sequences of industrial processes.” 28.32 These processes involve “altering the natural state of food by incorporating ingredients like salt, oil, sugar, and other substances.”3 As a result, these products are “manufactured mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and several additives used to mimic sensory properties of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects of the final product.”2 They typically contain “little or no intact foods, and are ready to be consumed without further preparation.”In other words, “they are laboratory engineered to maximize appeal, are calorie-dense, and have little or no fiber or other heartful nutrients.”4 

Examples of ultra-processed food include snacks such as mass-manufactured chips, buns, and cookies, and reconstituted meat and poultry products such as sausages and nuggets. Additionally, many pre-packaged meals fall into this category.5

The term “ultra-processed foods” comes from the NOVA food classification system, which was developed by researchers at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.6 

The system places food into four categories based on how much they have been processed during their production:

GROUP 1 – Unprocessed/minimally processed

  • Foods unaltered or altered by processes such as removing inedible parts, drying, grinding, cooking pasteurization, freezing, or non-alcoholic fermentation. No substances are added. Processing aims to increase food stability and enable easier or more diverse preparation.
  • Examples: Fresh or frozen fruits/vegetables, pulses, packaged/ grains, flours, nuts, plain pasta, pasteurized milk, chilled/frozen meat

GROUP 2 – Processed culinary ingredients

  • Substances obtained directly from Group 1 foods or from nature, created by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting or mining. Processing aims to create products to be used in preparation, seasoning and cooking of Group 1 foods.
  • Examples: Butter, vegetable oils, other fats, sugar, molasses, honey, salt

GROUP 3 – Processed foods

  • Products made by adding edible substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods using preservation methods such as nonalcoholic fermentation, canning, or bottling. Processing aims to increase stability and durability of Group 1 foods and to make them more enjoyable.
  • Examples: Canned vegetables in brine, freshly made breads or cheeses, cured meats

GROUP 4 – Ultra-processed foods

  • Formulations of low-cost substances derived from Group 1 foods with little to no whole foods; always contain edible substances not used in home kitchens (e.g., protein isolates) and/or cosmetic additives (e.g., flavors, colors, emulsifiers). Processing involves multiple steps and industries and aims to create products liable to replace all other NOVA groups.

Examples: Packaged snacks, cookies/biscuits, instant soups/ noodles, ready-to-eat/heat meals, candy, soft drinks

Source: Global Food and Research Program, UNC 

Worldwide, excessive amounts of ultra-processed foods have been linked to health concerns ranging from increased risk of obesity, hypertension, depression, and cancer to dying prematurely from all causes. By raising awareness about the detrimental effects of ultra-processed foods, this resource guide aims to serve as a valuable tool for individuals, healthcare professionals, educators, and policymakers in their journey toward promoting healthier dietary habits and reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods.


The definition of “ultra-processed foods” (UPF) is always in a state of evolution. Here are a variety of technical and general definitions. 

  1. “UPFs are artificial foods with organoleptic and sensory properties modified by the addition of ‘cosmetic’ additives and/or highly processed ingredients.”7 
  2. “They are characterized as having undergone excessive processing and containing additional ‘cosmetic’ ingredients and/or additives of primarily industrial use to mimic, exacerbate, mask or restore sensory properties (aroma, texture, taste and colour).”8 
  3. “Ultra-processed foods (UPF) (e.g., soft drinks, sweets, cookies, snacks, etc.) are those to which refined sugar and salt, fats, and food additives are added through industrial processes to improve their organoleptic properties, enhancing their attractiveness and increasing their consumption.”9 
  4. “They have characteristic organoleptic properties, and usually contain sophisticated additives, including artificial sweeteners, to intensify their sensory qualities and imitate the appearance of minimally processed food.”10 
  5. “Ultra-processed foods are formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by a series of industrial techniques and processes (hence ‘ultra-processed’).”11 
  6. “We might think of it as a novelty-type food — something that doesn’t resemble how a food might look in nature” – Kate Zeratsky, a Mayo Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist.12 

Other terms for ultra-processed foods: 

  • UPFs
  • Highly processed food
  • Junk food 

Facts and Data

  • According to a study published in The BMJ, “ultra-processed foods are the main source (nearly 58%) of calories eaten in the US and contribute almost 90% of the energy we get from added sugars.”13
  • A team from Northeastern’s Network Science Institute determined that “73% of the U.S. food supply is ultra-processed.”14
  • The calories “children and adolescents consumed from ultra-processed foods jumped from 61% to 67% of total caloric intake from 1999 to 2018.”15
  • “Ultra-processed foods account for 25 to 50 percent of the calories consumed in many other countries”, including England, Canada, France, and Japan.16,17,18,19 
  • “The UK is one of the biggest consumers per head in Europe of UPFs, with manufacturers often keen to produce more and more of these industrial, cheap foodstuffs.”20
  • Food, beverage, and restaurant companies spend almost $14 billion per year on advertising in the United States. Over” 80% of this advertising promotes fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks”.21

Search Engines and Search Terms

Searched on Google, Google NewsGoogle Scholar, PubMed, Science Direct, MDPI with search terms:


Resource Websites 

Research on Ultra-Processed Foods and Health

Cardiovascular Health 



All-Cause Mortality 

Maternal Health 


Research on Ultra-Processed Foods and Mental Health 

Children and Ultra-Processed Foods 

News and Media

Marketing/Business of Ultra-Processed Foods

Socioeconomics of Ultra-Processed Foods

Policy Solutions and News 

Government Regulations 

Opinion Pieces


Podcasts & Discussions

How to Cut Down on Ultra-Processed Foods

This resource guide presents a comprehensive overview of ultra-processed foods, drawing on a variety of reliable and reputable sources, including studies and expert opinions. The evidence gathered highlights the importance of understanding the risks associated with consuming ultra-processed foods and the need for individuals to actively work on reducing their consumption.


1. Lustig RH. Ultraprocessed Food: Addictive, Toxic, and Ready for Regulation. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):3401. Published 2020 Nov 5. doi:10.3390/nu12113401

2. Baraldi LG, Martinez Steele E, Canella DS, Monteiro CA. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and associated sociodemographic factors in the USA between 2007 and 2012: Evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2018;8(3). doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020574 

3. Katherine D. McManus M. What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health? Harvard Health Publishing. January 9, 2020. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605.

4. Berg S. What doctors wish patients knew about Ultraprocessed Foods. American Medical Association. December 16, 2022. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-ultraprocessed-foods.

5. Marx J. Ultra-processed food and ADHD. New Brain Nutrition. May 14, 2021. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://newbrainnutrition.com/ultra-processed-food-and-adhd/.

6. Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada ML, Moubarac J-C, Mozaffarian D, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: Evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016;6(3). doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892 

7. Mayo Clinic Minute: What is ultra-processed food? – mayo clinic news network. Mayo Clinic. September 9, 2022. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-what-are-ultraprocessed-foods-2/.

8. Fardet A, Rock E. Ultra-Processed Foods and Food System Sustainability: What Are the Links? Sustainability. 2020; 12(15):6280. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12156280

9.  Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, et al. Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutr. 2019;22(5):936-941. doi:10.1017/S1368980018003762

10. Contreras-Rodriguez, O., Solanas, M. & Escorihuela, R.M. Dissecting ultra-processed foods and drinks: Do they have a potential to impact the brain?. Rev Endocr Metab Disord 23, 697–717 (2022). doi.org/10.1007/s11154-022-09711-2

11. Monteiro, C.A., Cannon, G., Lawrence, M., Costa Louzada, M.L. and Pereira Machado, P. 2019. Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome, FAO. https://www.fao.org/3/ca5644en/ca5644en.pdf

12. Howland J. Mayo Clinic Minute: What is ultra-processed food? – mayo clinic news network. Mayo Clinic. September 9, 2022. Accessed July 4, 2023. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-what-are-ultraprocessed-foods-2/

13. Price JT. Has your food been chemically altered? new database of 50,000 products provides answers. Northeastern Global News. August 9, 2022. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://news.northeastern.edu/2022/05/25/ultra-processed-food-database/

14. Wang L, Martínez Steele E, Du M, et al. Trends in consumption of ultraprocessed foods among US youths aged 2-19 years, 1999-2018. JAMA. 2021;326(6):519. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.10238 

15. Rauber F, Steele EM, Louzada ML, Millett C, Monteiro CA, Levy RB. Ultra-processed food consumption and indicators of obesity in the United Kingdom population (2008-2016). PLOS ONE. 2020;15(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0232676 

16. Moubarac J-C, Batal M, Louzada ML, Martinez Steele E, Monteiro CA. Consumption of ultra-processed foods predicts diet quality in Canada. Appetite. 2017;108:512-520. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.11.006 

17. Calixto Andrade G, Julia C, Deschamps V, et al. Consumption of ultra-processed food and its association with sociodemographic characteristics and diet quality in a representative sample of French adults. Nutrients. 2021;13(2):682. doi:10.3390/nu13020682

18.  Koiwai K, Takemi Y, Hayashi F, et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods decreases the quality of the overall diet of middle-aged Japanese adults. Public Health Nutrition. 2019;22(16):2999-3008. doi:10.1017/s1368980019001514 

19. Mertens E, Colizzi C, Peñalvo JL. Ultra-processed food consumption in adults across Europe. European Journal of Nutrition. 2021;61(3):1521-1539. doi:10.1007/s00394-021-02733-7 

20. How the food industry created today’s obesity crisis, with Marion Nestle (ep. 110). University of Chicago News. March 30, 2023. Accessed June 29, 2023. https://news.uchicago.edu/how-food-industry-created-todays-obesity-crisis-marion-nestle

21. Harris JL. Targeted marketing report. Increasing disparities in unhealthy food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth. January 2019. Accessed July 5, 2023. https://media.ruddcenter.uconn.edu/PDFs/TargetedMarketingReport2019.pdf.

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