Learn how to identify ultra-processed foods

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Foods ultra processed can be attractive, tasty and practical to eat. Ease and low cost are among the reasons why this type of product is highly consumed.

The Ministry of Health warns that ultra-processed foods are nutritionally unbalanced and have a high content of fats, sugars and sodium. The intake of these foods is associated with the development of some types of cancer, with colorectal cancer being the most common.

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This type of product contains the addition of ingredients harmful to health, which can cause diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression. In addition, they generate an addiction in the body, which creates a food routine with low nutritional quality.

To differentiate processed, ultra-processed or in-natura, it is important to read the packaging labels. Check out the main differences between the types of food in the table below:

  • in natura: are obtained directly from plants or animals, without having undergone any alteration
  • Processed: industrial manufacture, with the addition of salt, sugar or another product that makes the food more durable and visually attractive
  • Ultra-processed: are industrial formulations that are produced in several processing steps. Contain substances synthesized in laboratories, which are extracted from food and other organic sources
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Unlike processed foods, most ultra-processed foods are consumed throughout the day, replacing foods such as fruit, milk and water or, in main meals, in place of culinary preparations.

The list includes filled cookies, packaged snacks, sodas and instant noodles. Because of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess and to replace natural or minimally processed foods.

“Ultra-processed foods should be consumed as little as possible. We should always prioritize those in natura. It doesn’t have to be something radical, but the consumption of ultra-processed foods should be more sporadic. In addition, nutritional monitoring is very important”, says nutritionist Loraine Ferraz, from the Hospital Federal do Andaraí (HFA), in Rio de Janeiro.

The nutritionist, who assists people with obesity at the Morbid Obesity Care and Treatment Service (Satom) at the hospital, states that it is very common for people to put aside natural foods and prioritize this type of product, mainly because they are quickly consumed.

Healthy eating

Adopting a healthy diet goes beyond individual choice. Economic, political, cultural and social factors can positively or negatively influence people’s eating patterns.

Living in neighborhoods or territories where there are fairs and markets that sell good quality fruits and vegetables makes it easier to adopt healthy eating patterns, for example.

On the other hand, the higher cost of minimally processed foods compared to ultra-processed foods, the need to eat in places where healthy food options are not offered, and the intense exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods contribute to making it difficult to change the pattern of nutrition. .

The Food Guide for the Brazilian Population, from the Ministry of Health, considers these specificities and recommends the preference for natural or minimally processed foods, in addition to valuing varieties of plant origin as the basis of food.

“The fridge and pantry must always be very organized, with fruits, vegetables and fresh vegetables. In order not to fall into temptation always, avoid having treats and ultra-processed items in the closet. At the restaurant, nothing changes: opt for those foods that are within the menu proposed by the nutritionist”, says nutritionist Roberta Cassani, an associate researcher at Unicamp and member of the scientific board of the Brazilian Society of Food and Nutrition (SBAN).

processed foods

The Ministry of Health recommends limiting the use of processed foods, consuming them, in small amounts, as ingredients in culinary preparations or as part of food-based meals. in natura or minimally processed.

The ingredients and methods used in the manufacture of processed foods – such as canned vegetables, fruit compote, cheeses and breads – adversely alter the nutritional composition of the foods from which they are derived.

Processed foods are relatively simple and old-fashioned products essentially made by adding salt or sugar or other culinary substances such as oil or vinegar to a natural or minimally processed food.

Processing techniques for these products are similar to culinary techniques, and may include cooking, drying, fermenting, packaging food in cans or jars, and using preservation methods such as salting, brining, curing, and smoking. In general, processed foods are easily recognized as modified versions of the original food.

The list includes canned whole foods preserved in brine or in a salt and vinegar solution, whole fruits preserved in sugar, various types of meat with added salt and fish preserved in salt or oil, cheeses made from milk and salt (and microorganisms used to fermenting milk) and breads made from wheat flour, water and salt (and yeast used to ferment the flour).

In the examples cited, the aim of industrial processing is to increase the shelf life of foods and often make them more palatable. Although processed food retains the basic identity and most nutrients of the food from which it is derived, the ingredients and processing methods used in manufacturing unfavorably alter the nutritional composition.

The addition of salt or sugar, usually in amounts much higher than those used in culinary preparations, transforms the original food into a source of nutrients whose excessive consumption is associated with heart disease, obesity and other chronic diseases.


The manufacture of ultra-processed foods, generally carried out by large industries, involves several stages and processing techniques and many ingredients, including salt, sugar, oils and fats and substances for exclusively industrial use.

Common industrial-use ingredients in these products include soy and milk proteins, meat extracts, substances obtained by further processing of oils, fats, carbohydrates and proteins, as well as substances synthesized in the laboratory from food and other organic sources such as oil and coal.

Many of these synthesized substances act as food additives that extend the shelf life of foods, in addition to adding color, flavor, aroma and texture more attractive to consumption.

Processing techniques used in manufacturing include uniquely industrial technologies such as using corn flour to make packaged snacks, industrial versions of cooking techniques such as pre-processing with frying or cooking, in addition to sophisticated packaging in various sizes and suitable for storing the product or for immediate consumption.

Among the ultra-processed are various types of treats, drinks sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, powders for refreshments, sausages and other products derived from meat and animal fat, frozen products, dehydrated products (such as cake mixes, powdered soups, instant noodles and seasoning), in addition to various products such as breakfast cereals, cereal bars and energy drinks.

Breads and baked goods become ultra-processed foods when, in addition to wheat flour, yeast, water and salt, their ingredients include substances such as hydrogenated vegetable fat, sugar, starch, whey, emulsifiers and other additives.

A practical way to distinguish ultra-processed foods from processed foods is to look at the ingredient list on packaged food labels that have more than one ingredient.

A product belongs to the ultra-processed category when it has a high number of ingredients (such as five or more) and the presence of ingredients with unfamiliar names and not used in culinary preparations (hydrogenated vegetable fat, interesterified oils, fructose syrup, isolated proteins, bulking agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, coloring agents, flavoring agents, flavor enhancers and various other types of additives).

Source: CNN Brasil

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