Published: June 23, 2023
ultra processed food consumption

We may earn a commission, from companies mentioned in this article, at no additional cost to you.


If there is anything we learned during the pandemic is that our healthcare system is highly overwhelmed, overpriced, broken, and inaccessible. Our healthcare costs are higher than they have ever been. 

Ultra processed food consumption contributes to our health crisis. As a result, Americans are much sicker than they ever have been, because they consume highly processed foods: full of additives, chemicals, preservatives, and GMOs. 

In this comprehensive article, we will discuss the definition of ultra processed foods, some of the most common diseases that these foods cause, compare them with the processed foods in Europe, potential strategies to reduce their consumption, and a case study.

Key Takeaways

  • Ultra processed foods are low in essential nutrients and contribute to poor diet quality.
  • Regular consumption of these foods is associated with obesity, weight gain, and an increased risk of chronic diseases.
  • Ultra processed foods can disrupt gut health and lead to inflammation.
  • They can have addictive properties and impact mental well-being.
  • Opting for whole, minimally processed foods is essential for promoting optimal health.

Ultra processed foods meaning

Ultra processed foods are a category of food products that undergo extensive industrial processing and contain a combination of several ingredients, including additives and preservatives. These foods are typically heavily modified from their original form and often contain little to no whole or minimally processed ingredients.

Characteristics of ultra processed foods include:

1. High in additives: They often contain a large number of additives such as artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners. These additives are used to enhance taste, texture, and shelf life.

2. Low in nutritional value: Ultra processed foods are typically low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. They are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium.

3. Highly palatable: These foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, meaning they are formulated to be very appealing to our taste buds, often combining high levels of sugar, fat, and salt.

4. Ready-to-eat or convenience factor: Ultra processed foods are often pre-packaged and ready-to-eat or require minimal preparation. They are designed for convenience and can be consumed quickly and easily.

Examples of ultra processed foods include:

– Sugary drinks and soda

– Packaged snacks (chips, cookies, and crackers)

– Instant noodles and soups

– Frozen ready meals

– Processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, and deli meats)

– Sweetened breakfast cereals

– Fast food burgers, fries, and pizzas

Regular consumption of ultra processed foods has been associated with various negative health effects, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. It is generally recommended to prioritize whole and minimally processed foods in a balanced diet for better health outcomes.

ultra processed food

Nova food classification ultra processed foods

Nova food classification is a system developed by researchers to categorize foods based on the degree of processing they undergo. The classification system was created to help assess the impact of food processing on health and to provide information on the nutritional quality of different food products.

The Nova classification divides foods into four main groups:

1. Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: These include fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, and fresh meats, poultry, and fish. These foods undergo little to no processing and are generally considered the healthiest options.

2. Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients: This group includes substances derived from Group 1 foods or nature, such as oils, fats, sugar, salt, and butter. These ingredients are used in cooking or food preparation but are not consumed on their own.

3. Group 3: Processed foods: These foods are made by adding salt, sugar, oil, or other culinary ingredients to Group 1 foods. Examples include canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, salted nuts, and cured meats. While some processing takes place, the foods in this group generally retain their original nutritional properties.

4. Group 4: Ultra processed foods: This group represents the most heavily processed foods and includes products that are typically made with numerous additives and industrial processes. Ultra processed foods often contain ingredients such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and preservatives. 

Examples include packaged snacks, sugary cereals, soda, fast food, and pre-packaged ready meals. These foods tend to be energy-dense, nutrient-poor, and associated with a higher risk of obesity and chronic diseases when consumed in excess.

The Nova food classification system is used by researchers, health professionals, and policymakers to study dietary patterns and their impact on health outcomes. It helps identify the potential health risks associated with consuming large amounts of ultra processed foods and promotes the consumption of minimally processed or unprocessed foods for better nutrition.

What are the consequences of ultra processed food diet?

It is our food that is making us sick. We eat a diet that is full of highly processed foods including but not limited to salts, sugary drinks, additives, preservatives, unhealthy oils, chemicals, fillers, dyes, etc. While these foods may be convenient, they don’t provide any nutritional value. 

Furthermore, these foods are highly addictive, more addictive than drugs. The chemicals inside them, make us addicted to them so we cannot stop eating them. 

We come back for more. Fast food is cheap, convenient, and around every corner. 

“Poor diet is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, causing more than half a million deaths per year. Just 10 dietary factors are estimated to cause nearly 1,000 deaths every day from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes alone.

 These conditions are dizzyingly expensive. The total economic cost of obesity is estimated at $1.72 trillion per year or 9.3 percent of gross domestic product.”

In addition to fast food, our grocery stores are filled with mostly highly processed foods. If you go to most supermarkets, you will see that there are more processed foods than whole, real foods. 

Have you ever noticed that about 70% of the foods in any grocery store are heavily processed? These foods are filled with GMOs.


What are GMOs? 

GMOs are genetically modified organisms that are produced in a lab to make crops resistant to pesticides, and glyphosate, which is a highly toxic chemical, and carcinogen.

“Glyphosate has infiltrated all levels of the food chain. Studies have found Glyphosate in the water supply, in numerous plants and animals, and even in human breast milk samples. People who eat these foods are exposed to these carcinogens.”

Chronic diseases related to ultra processed foods

Health Risks Associated with Ultra Processed Food Consumption

Consuming excessive amounts of ultra processed food has been associated with several negative health outcomes. While it is important to note that ultra-processed foods themselves may not directly cause diseases, their consumption has been linked to an increased risk of developing certain health conditions. 

Here are some diseases or health issues that have been associated with the consumption of ultra processed foods:


Ultra processed foods are often high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and calories while being low in essential nutrients. Regular consumption of these foods can contribute to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity.

“Three in four adults are overweight or obese.”

Type 2 diabetes

High consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. These foods are typically rich in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and unhealthy fats, which can lead to insulin resistance and impaired glucose metabolism.

“Americans are very sick and much sicker than we realize. More than 100 million adults — almost half the entire adult population — have pre-diabetes or diabetes. Diabetes healthcare spending costs 327 billion annually.”


Cardiovascular diseases

Ultra processed foods often contain high amounts of sodium, trans fats, and artificial additives. These components can contribute to high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.

Heart and blood vessel diseases are some of the highest in the country. Heart attack is the leading cause of mortality in the United States.

“Cardiovascular disease afflicts about 122 million people and causes roughly 840,000 deaths each year, or about 2,300 deaths each day. Cardiovascular disease costs $351 billion annually in health care spending and lost productivity.”

Pulmonary diseases

Ultra processed food often contain high levels of pro-inflammatory ingredients such as refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. Chronic inflammation in the body can contribute to the development and progression of respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even lung cancer.

 Metabolic syndrome

Regular consumption of ultra processed foods has been associated with an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Metabolic syndrome significantly raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Hormonal imbalances 

In recent years, a lot of people, especially women are facing issues with reproduction, and hormone imbalances. For instance, some women suffer from infertility or irregular menstrual cycles. One of the factors that are responsible for this is the consumption of ultra processed foods.

Certain types of cancer

Some studies have found associations between high intake of ultra processed foods and an increased risk of certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and gastric cancer. However, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between ultra-processed foods and cancer.

The National Cancer Institute states, that in 2020, an estimated 1,806,590 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States and 606,520 people died from this disease.

Digestive disorders

Ultra processed foods are often low in fiber, which is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Insufficient fiber intake can contribute to digestive disorders like constipation, diverticulitis, and irritable bowel diseases (IBD).

A recent study by BMJ published in 2021 found that people who consumed ultra processed foods were associated with higher risks of IBD.

It is important to note that while these associations exist, other factors such as overall dietary patterns, sedentary lifestyle, and genetics also play a significant role in the development of these diseases. Maintaining a balanced and varied diet consisting of minimally processed, whole foods is generally recommended for optimal health.

Cognitive decline

Ultra processed food consumption has been a topic of concern about various aspects of health, including cognitive decline. There is definitive evidence linking ultra processed foods directly to cognitive decline, several studies suggest a potential association between the two. 

Ultra processed foods typically contain high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and low nutritional value. They often include pre-packaged snacks, sugary drinks, fast food, and heavily processed ready-to-eat meals. These types of foods have been associated with several health issues, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases.

Several observational studies have found an association between a diet high in highly processed foods and poorer cognitive function. 

For example, a study published in the journal of Neuroscience analyzed data from a large cohort study and found that a higher intake of ultra processed foods was associated with lower cognitive performance, including memory and executive function.

Another recent study found a link between a diet high in processed foods and an increased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia in older adults. 

These and similar studies provide evidence for the relationship between ultra processed foods and cognitive decline. Additionally, other lifestyle factors, such as physical activity, social engagement, and overall dietary patterns, play significant roles in cognitive health. 

Therefore, it is important to consider a holistic approach to maintaining brain health, including a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, along with regular exercise and cognitive stimulation.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Another concerning aspect of ultra processed foods is their inadequate nutritional value. These products often lack essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are crucial for maintaining optimal health. By relying heavily on ultra processed foods, individuals may be depriving themselves of key nutrients, which can lead to deficiencies and related health problems.

Processed foods in Europe vs US

Processed foods in America vs Europe 

The Role of Food Processing

Food processing itself is not inherently problematic. Many foods undergo some level of processing to make them safe, convenient, and enjoyable to consume. However, it is the excessive processing involved in ultra processed foods that poses a threat to our health. By stripping away natural nutrients and incorporating artificial additives, these foods compromise our well-being.

Processed foods in America and Europe share some similarities but also have notable differences due to cultural, regulatory, and consumer preferences. 

Here are some key points to consider:

Cultural Differences

American and European food cultures have distinct preferences and traditions, which influence the types and consumption of processed foods. Americans often prioritize convenience, speed, and larger portion sizes, while Europeans generally place greater emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients and traditional cooking methods.

Ingredients and Additives 

Both America and Europe have regulations governing the use of food additives and ingredients in processed foods, but specific rules and allowed substances can vary. Europe generally has more stringent regulations, limiting or banning certain additives, artificial colors, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) more extensively than the United States.

Chemical food colorings and dyes

The US allows food companies to use chemical food coloring in our foods which results in neurological, and mental issues and cancers. However, Europe does not allow these chemicals to be used in foods due to the health risks.

Labeling and Transparency 

European food labeling regulations tend to be stricter compared to the United States. Europe requires clearer and more detailed labeling, including nutritional information per 100 grams or milliliters, allergen information, and country of origin. In the United States, labeling requirements are somewhat less comprehensive.

Food Quality and Standards

European consumers often prioritize food quality, authenticity, and regional specialties. This emphasis contributes to a greater demand for minimally processed foods, fresh produce, and local products. In contrast, American consumers may be more accustomed to a wider range of highly processed foods.

Fast Food Culture

Fast food and quick-service restaurants have a significant presence in both American and European societies. However, the American fast food industry is more prominent and pervasive, with fast food chains originating in the United States having expanded globally.

 While fast food consumption has increased in Europe, it remains relatively less dominant compared to the United States.

Market Availability

The availability of processed foods varies between the two regions. American supermarkets typically offer a vast array of ultra processed foods, often occupying large sections of the store. In some European countries, smaller supermarkets, specialty shops, farmers’ markets, and local food markets are more common, providing a wider range of fresh and minimally processed options.

“Ninety percent of the corn, sugar, and soy that are grown in North America is genetically engineered. As a result, 85% of processed foods sold in America contain GMOs. Yet, the FDA does not require any pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods.”

Strategies to reduce ultra processed food consumption

Strategies to Reduce Ultra Processed Food Consumption

Reducing ultra processed food consumption requires a conscious effort and a shift towards whole, minimally processed foods.

 Here are some strategies that can help in this process:

  1. Meal Planning and Preparation: Planning and preparing meals in advance allows for healthier, home-cooked options and reduces reliance on processed convenience foods.
  1. Reading Food Labels: Familiarize yourself with food labels and ingredient lists. Look for products with fewer artificial additives, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.
  1. Choosing Whole Foods: Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and legumes. These nutrient-dense options provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  1. Cooking at Home: Preparing meals from scratch gives you control over the ingredients used, allowing for healthier alternatives to processed meals.
  1. Developing Healthy Habits: Incorporate mindful eating practices, such as paying attention to hunger and fullness cues, and finding alternative ways to cope with stress or emotional triggers.

Highly processed foods in hospitals
Highly processed foods in hospitals 

The presence of ultra processed foods in hospitals has been a topic of concern for several reasons:

1. Nutritional quality: Ultra processed foods often lack the essential nutrients necessary for maintaining good health. They are typically low in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which are crucial for patient recovery and overall well-being.

2. Health implications: Consumption of ultra processed foods has been associated with a higher risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Hospitals, as institutions dedicated to promoting health and healing, should prioritize offering nutritious food options to patients, staff, and visitors.

3. Patient outcomes: Providing patients with a healthy and balanced diet can positively impact their recovery, immune function, and overall health outcomes. Conversely, a diet high in ultra processed foods may hinder the healing process and compromise patient well-being.

4. Staff and visitor options: Hospitals often have cafeterias or food service facilities for staff and visitors. By offering predominantly ultra processed food options, these establishments may inadvertently contribute to unhealthy dietary patterns among those accessing their services.

Consumption of ultra processed foods in the hospital case study

As a staff Respiratory Therapist at the hospital, my primary focus is on providing care and support to patients with respiratory conditions. While my main role may not revolve around nutrition or dietary choices, I had some observations related to ultra processed food consumption in the hospital setting.

Here’s what I witnessed:

In my interactions with patients as a Respiratory Therapist, I often come across individuals who suffer from respiratory ailments such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other cardiopulmonary diseases.

While my primary concern lies in treating their respiratory conditions, I couldn’t help but notice the impact of nutrition, including the presence of ultra processed foods, on their overall health.

During my rounds, I came across patients who have trays filled with processed snacks, sugary beverages, and meals high in unhealthy fats, additives, and preservatives. These ultra processed food choices can have a detrimental effect on their respiratory health.

For example, excessive consumption of processed inflammatory seed oil intake can worsen conditions like congestive heart failure or exacerbate pulmonary edema in patients with respiratory distress.

In conversations with patients, I inquired about their dietary habits and lifestyle choices as part of assessing their overall health. This provided an opportunity to address the importance of nutrition in managing their respiratory conditions.

Some patients mentioned relying on ultra processed foods due to convenience or limited access to healthier options. 

While I did not have direct control over the hospital’s food offerings, I played a role in advocating for better nutritional support for patients. It is important for healthcare professionals to collaborate with the hospital’s nutrition department or other relevant staff members to raise awareness about the impact of diet on respiratory and overall health.

This might involve providing educational materials or participating in interdisciplinary discussions to emphasize the importance of nutritious choices, such as whole foods, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, in hospital care.

By working in tandem with other healthcare professionals, we can aim to ensure that patients receive holistic care that considers not only their respiratory condition but also their overall well-being.

Through my role as a Respiratory Therapist, I had the opportunity to reinforce the importance of a balanced diet and encourage patients to make healthier choices, thereby positively impacting their respiratory and overall health outcomes.

Steps to address the presence of ultra processed foods in hospitals and promote healthier food choices

Some initiatives include:

1. Policy changes: Hospitals can implement policies that prioritize the procurement and serving of minimally processed, whole foods. This may involve setting nutritional standards for food vendors and establishing guidelines for food and beverage offerings within the hospital.

2. Menu planning and education: Hospitals can work with nutritionists and dietitians to develop menus that focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods while minimizing the use of ultra processed options. Providing education and resources to staff, patients, and visitors about the importance of healthy eating can also help promote positive dietary choices.

3. Local sourcing and partnerships: Collaborating with local farmers and suppliers can enable hospitals to access fresh, locally grown produce and other minimally processed food items. This can improve the quality and nutritional value of meals provided.

4. Stakeholder engagement: Engaging hospital staff, patients, visitors, and the broader community in discussions about healthy food options and the negative impact of ultra processed food consumption can create awareness and support for making positive changes.

It is worth noting that eliminating all ultra processed foods from hospitals may be challenging due to factors such as cost, storage requirements, and the need for longer shelf life in some cases.

However, by taking steps to reduce the prevalence of these foods and prioritize healthier alternatives, hospitals can contribute to the well-being of their patients, staff, and visitors.

Related articles:



Many of these diseases mentioned in this article are very much preventable by simple lifestyle changes. We should be able to make the connection between ultra processed food consumption and the fact that it causes a multitude of diseases. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case. We must do more to educate people and create awareness about consuming these health-detrimental foods. The only way we can improve our health is by being aware of this global issue and choosing better foods for our health.

We can make better choices of foods that are nourishing and healing versus foods that are harming, and damaging our health. 

What are your thoughts about ultra processed food consumption? Please let me know in the comments below. 


1. Shore, Jennifer, et al. “The American Food Supply: Not Fit for European Consumption.” Focus for Health, 14 Nov. 2019.

2. Lamacraft, Brian. “How Our Modern Food Is Killing Us.” Medium, ILLUMINATION, 27 May 2021.

3. Reiley, Laura. “The Total Health and Climate Consequences of the American Food System Cost Three Times as Much as the Food Itself.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 17 July 2021.

4. “Modern Industrial Foods and Their Effects on the Human Body.” Natural Medicine Journal.

5. RV; Bhat. “Human Health Problems Associated with Current Agricultural Food Production.” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

6. “Our Blog.” Healthy Places by Design The Roots of Americas Broken Food System Comments.

7. Gillam, Carey. “Glyphosate Fact Sheet: Cancer and Other Health Concerns.” U.S. Right to Know, 22 Nov. 2021.

8. “What Is Cancer?” National Cancer Institute.

9. Narula, Neeraj, et al. “Association of Ultra Processed Food Intake with Risk of Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Prospective Cohort Study.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 15 July 2021.

10. Neuroscience News. “Ultra Processed Foods May Lead to Cognitive Decline.” Neuroscience News, 5 Feb. 2023, 

11. LaMotte, Sandee. “Dementia Risk May Increase If You’re Eating These Foods, Study Says.” CNN, 5 Dec. 2022, 

Sharing is caring!


Keep Reading

FREE Clean Eating

Grocery List

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe anytime.

Skip to content