What's the difference between minimally processed and ultraprocessed foods?

Answer From Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.

Minimally processed foods can simply be described as those that closely resemble their fresh, whole form. Mixed foods made with whole foods that are easily identifiable can also be considered minimally processed. The processing done to these foods is typically for preservation (canning, freezing or drying).

Examples of minimally processed foods include:

  • Canned or frozen vegetables
  • Frozen chicken or fish
  • Fresh bread (homemade from a bakery)
  • Milk and yogurt

By contrast, ultraprocessed foods are foods made of multiple ingredients, some of which aren't recognizable to home cooks. In addition, highly processed foods typically contain added fat, salt or sugar to make them appealing.

Examples of highly processed foods include:

  • Salty snack foods
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Meat molded into nuggets, strips or other shapes
  • Mass-produced, highly refined breads and sweets
  • Microwaveable dinners and frozen pizzas

Nutritionally speaking, minimally processed foods generally offer similar nutritional benefits — vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber — as the natural unprocessed versions do.

Ultraprocessed foods may have naturally occurring or added nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber or protein. However, ultraprocessed foods often provide more calories than they do nutrients.

Can eating too many ultraprocessed foods affect your health? It seems likely. An increasing number of studies have found an association between ultraprocessed foods and obesity and heart disease.

For your health, choose more whole foods and fewer ultraprocessed ones. Does that mean you have to spend hours in the kitchen cooking from scratch? Not necessarily. Build meals with whole foods and some minimally processed foods, ideally ones with just a few recognizable ingredients and little or no added fat, sugar or salt.

Sept. 20, 2019 See more Expert Answers