Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how they have changed our diet

But these foods, subjected to transformations and alterations by the industry, are changing our eating habits, making us less aware and more sick. Let's see how.

By Cookist

Practical, captivating and apparently cheap. We are talking about ultra-processed foods which, also good because they are ready for consumption, often represent a solution that is difficult to give up. And then they are good, indeed irresistible (and here we have science and his artificial mix of salt, sugar and fat). But these foods, subjected to transformations and alterations by the industry, are changing our eating habits, making us less aware and more sick. Let's see how.

You eat a potato chip, only one, and meanwhile promise yourself that it will be the first and last one. You devour it, just enough time to savor its flavor and right crispness, and immediately grab another one. And then another, and then another again, and in a moment the bag is finished and, in an inversely proportional way, feelings of guilt and a sense of inadequacy increase. Is it so difficult to stop eating these chips? The answer is yes and it has a precise name (and consequently an equally validated scientific explanation): ultra-processed food.

Created by Carlos Monteiro, professor of Nutrition and Public Health of the University of São Paulo, Brazil, this term indicates a food product so transformed that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the basic ingredients of which it is made. And what are these foods? If you want to summarize, the answer would be everything we love to eat, so breakfast cereals, chips, bars, chocolate snacks, sugary drinks, candies, donuts and so on. In short, all those foods with a high calorie density, poor from a nutritional point of view, but rich in salt, sugars, hydrogenated fats and chemical additives. These substances are added by the food industry to improve their organoleptic characteristics and make them more palatable and easily preserved. Have you ever wondered why your homemade tart lasts a few days at most (especially when it is prepared with wholemeal flour and high quality ingredients) and the one purchased at the supermarket has a multi-year expiration? Hey, don't wonder.


To be honest, with the exception of very few unprocessed foods – that have not undergone any type of processing (such as fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs) – most of what we consume has been separated, sliced, boned, cleaned, shredded, frozen or thawed. Many healthy products such as extra virgin olive oil, pasta or yogurt are, in reality, processed foods. The milk is pasteurized, the peas can be frozen, but cooking is also a process, just like fermentation or drying: almost everything we consume is somehow processed or altered. But a thing is to drink a fresh orange juice, quite another, however, is to buy a fruit juice containing sugars, preservatives and a minimum percentage of pulp.

The classification system

In order to classify foods according to the degree of processing to which they are subjected, a system has been developed, it is called Nova and its aim is to standardize all the pre-existing systems, often different from each other. Recognized as a valid tool for the promotion of public health and used to draw up food guidelines, this system divides the products into four categories:

the first group includes those unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and eggs (also chilled, frozen, pasteurized or vacuum packed);

the second group includes the condiments or ingredients of more complex dishes, such as salt, sugar, flour, oil and butter;

the third group, that of processed foods, includes those foods composed of at least two or three ingredients and are subjected to processes such as cooking, storage and non-alcoholic fermentation (among these there are canned legumes, processed meat, smoked fish…);

the fourth and final group is that to which ultra-processed foods and drinks belong, that are those industrial products rich in sugars, oils, fats, salt, stabilizers and preservatives (energy drinks, sugary and carbonated drinks, fruit juices, various sweets, pre-packed dishes, hamburgers and hot dogs, French fries and chips).


Hyper-palatable, good also because they are ready for consumption and apparently cheap (only in the short term, however), these foods are sold in attractive packaging and are often the protagonists of winning marketing campaigns, intended above all for the youngest and most consequently for families. These foods have upset our diet and are making us and our children increasingly overweight, if not really obese, not very active and aware of what we eat and the history behind each ingredient and dish. But above all these foods are transforming us into sick individuals: there are now many scientific studies that demonstrate a close correlation between the consumption of these foods and the onset of metabolic disorders, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or some types of cancer. So what to do? Just prefer the foods of the very first categories and avoid, with rare exceptions, those belonging to the last group.

What is palatability

Widely demonstrated by numerous scientific studies, palatability is one of the main characteristics of industrial food, such as to make us absolutely dependent on it. The food industry, in fact, has discovered that the union of three ingredients in particular creates an absolutely perfect combination, capable of stimulating appetite (that's why a potato chip is never a single potato chip) and ensure that you always have greater desire for that particular junk food. This is the synergy between sugar, salt and fat and the phenomenon is known as "bliss point", that is the point of maximum bliss induced by a food.

The union of these three ingredients, suitably dosed also according to the target for which the food is intended (the perception of sweet and salty is different in adults and kids), exerts a very powerful brain stimulation, creating a sort of addiction. Dopamine levels – the neurotransmitter involved in the sensation of pleasure caused by food – never decrease, neuronal circuits are altered and food becomes a real drug.


What strategies can we implement? First of all, we should get the palate back to simple, genuine and basic flavors, preferring foods and dishes with high nutritional value, mainly composed of fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and eggs. Chosen consciously and according to season, they are not only rich in precious beneficial substances but also a concentrate of flavors and aromas (this will allow to avoid flavor enhancers and various fats as much as possible). The wrong eating habits – caused by globalization, urbanization and increasingly frenetic rhythms and lifestyles – can be changed thanks to the recovery of culture and gastronomic traditions, with the rediscovery, for example, of the pleasure of cooking, also as a recreational activity in which to involve the kids at home, and above all through education in more aware and possibly local choices.

As for shopping at the supermarket, it is essential to read the labels carefully and to prefer the purchase of those foods with a short, essential and recognizable list of ingredients (let's put them back on the shelf if there are ingredients with an unpronounceable name inside, syrups of various types, hydrogenated fats and additives with strange abbreviations). In short, let’s buy the same foods that our grandparents would buy.

Every dish has a story
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