Nutrition Meets Food Science

Ultra-Processed Foods – Healthy, Tasty & Convenient

There has been some perception in the minds of consumers and activists that processing may be causing losses of nutrients and that home cooked foods using unprocessed ingredients in the market may be better than processed foods. Although it may be true if the fruits and vegetables and others were freshly harvested and home cooked. However, considering that these fresh ingredients come from long distances and harvested days ago, there may be many changes taken place. Some processed foods especially frozen foods etc. may be actually more nutritious than many fresh foods. Then after several revisions of classification were done to separate minimally processed, processed and ultra-processed foods and without much scientific reasoning some foods were divided between processed and ultra-processed foods. Thus, bread when made with wheat flour, water, salt and yeast is called processed but if emulsifiers or colours are added then bread becomes ultra-processed. This creates a lot of confusion in the minds of consumers and then they start suspecting all the foods prepared and packaged by factory.

Processing of foods is a necessity today as we need more food to feed ever-increasing population and, in the future, the changing environment may make it even more difficult to produce extra food.

Any type of processing, whether in a factory or at home, will cause some changes in the food. When food is cooked at home, the heat will degrade heat-sensitive vitamins including B-vitamins as well as vitamin C. Same happens when food products are made using heat or thermal processing. When bread is made at home, the same ingredients are used as in industrially baked bread, but people call the latter processed food but refrain from saying so for home-baked bread. This causes doubts in people’s mind about food products made in factories and packed and sold in markets and are called processed foods.

Many decades ago, when the urbanization began, a large population started staying in cities and needed large amounts of foods what were produced in agricultural systems far away from cities. At that time, to market fresh foods would not just incur losses due to spoilage but also there would be loss of quality including nutritional quality. So, these foods were processed into frozen, dried, canned foods and sent as foods that would last much longer.

Some of the foods could be made with more enjoyable and flavourful by using refined ingredients like refined wheat flour, with more sugar, harder fat and salt. This with urban energy-saving lifestyle gave rise to some of the non-communicable diseases like hypertension, obesity, cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes and others. As people were consuming more of processed foods, there were correlations drawn that processed foods were causing all these problems.

Ultra-processed Foods

Now there is a campaign against ultra-processed foods, irrespective of whether they contain whole grain, high protein and dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals etc. The perception is being created that when it is prepared in a factory using ingredients available only on large scale, made ‘hyperpalatable’ using additives so people would consume excessive amounts of it and processed in factory and packaged, it becomes ultra-processed and so unhealthy.

There was a factor considered for differentiating. It was claimed that many substances and additives that were not available or not used in kitchens are used in preparing ultra-processed foods. Such ingredients like hydrolysed proteins, soya, whey, casein proteins, fructose, maltodextrin, soluble & insoluble fibre, hydrogenated oil as well as flavours, colours, emulsifiers, gelling agents etc. were used only in factories. However, most of these are easily available and are being used by home-cooks. So, it is absurd to make such unscientific classification and create confusion.

In order to support this theory, some studies were conducted by collecting information about diet and their health condition from participants and based on their narratives it was shown that such food products cause the non-communicable diseases. Rather than laying the blame on such proven substances as excess of fat, sugar and salt and lack of essential nutrients such as proteins, dietary fibre and micronutrients, the blame was shifted to a complex combination of nutrients, processes and additives. All this is not based on randomised controlled trials (RCT). The additives have all been shown to be safe under such trials before being approved for use in food products.

There is no evidence to show that ultra-processed foods give rise to hyperpalatable foods associated with quasi-addictive effect. The broad definition of such foods makes it impossible to develop any kind of food-based dietary guidelines. There seems little advantage of such classification based on such confusing method.

Narratives with ultra-processed foods creates confusion not just in the minds of consumers but among the health professionals too. We should be able to easily distinguish healthy and not so healthy. The best way is to watch out for nutrients and some substances that are known to cause health issues. Processes and additives have been examined by regulatory agencies after years of research and testing for their safety by scientists.

Consumer Survey

One plant cell ingredient company Ayana Bio asked about 2000 American consumers aged 18+ about their perception of ultra-processed foods. About half of them thought these were bad for health, but over 2/3 said they would still eat ultra-processed foods that included more nutritious ingredients or with added health benefits. Younger generations, Millennials and Gen Z were more interested in healthier ultra-processed foods. Taste and convenience were important to about 60% of them. Over 68% said they would pay more for healthier ultra-processed foods.

Some examples of innovative products cited were macaroni and cheese with recommended amount of broccoli without broccoli taste, cereal with recommended amount of blueberries without taste of blueberries and chocolate milk made with actual cacao.

In short, consumers would want high quality ingredients and taste prioritised. They would pay more for healthier ingredients even when they are processed. Processing can incorporate nutrient-dense ingredients. Thus, they would continue with processed foods but would prefer to have healthier options.

Hence instead of confusing everyone, there is a need for tasty and convenient processed food products that are healthy with ingredients that are high quality and nutritious. We need to include such ingredients as millets without compromising taste. The emphasis on taste, cost, and shelf life should be joined with nutrition and health.


  1. Ultra-processed foods, diet quality, & health using the NOVA classification system, Monteiro et al. FAO, Rome 2019
  2. Ultra-processed Foods: Bad Nutrition or Bad Definition? Azeredo & Azeredo, ACS Food Sci Tech 2022, 2, 613-615
  3. Ultra-processed Foods in Human Health: A Critical Appraisal: Gibney et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2017; 106:717-24
  4. Harris Poll on behalf of Ayana Bio in Sep 2023, The Ultra-Processed Food Pulse: Consumers are hungry for healthier processed foods

Dr Jagadish Pai

Editor, PFNDAI

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