Can you build a “healthy” diet out of ultra-processed foods?

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Scientists are still trying to define and classify ultra-processed foods. Darren Muir/Stocksy
  • The USDA has devised an experimental, nutritionally complete, seven-day meal plan composed almost entirely of ultra-processed foods.
  • However, a range of ultra-processed foods have been widely linked to chronic health problems.
  • Even the diet scientists created fell short of meeting certain nutritional needs, such as vitamin D and E.
  • The definition of what qualifies as ultra-processed food remains unresolved.

For the past 20 years, Americans have been doing it continuously consumed more industrially produced foods, going from 53.5% of their daily calories in 2001 and 2002 to 57% in 2017-2018. These foods are often referred to as ultra-processed or UPF foods.

There is evidence that these foods are linked to chronic diseasesand being formulated for flavor, cost, and an extended shelf life may not provide adequate nutrition.

Scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) involved in nutritional research were curious as to whether one person could meet all Dietary guidelines for Americans (DGA) strictly by UPF. Researchers have published a study presenting a proof-of-concept seven-day menu.

The menu scored 86 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) with 91 percent of calories in the diet coming from the UPF. It lacked just two nutritional targets: It was high in sodium and low in whole grains.

By comparison, the average American diet scores just 59 on the HEI.

The menu is not really a recommended meal plan, but is instead an experiment and a demonstration of the flexibility of the DGA recommendations.

To build their menu in line with current nutritional recommendations, the researchers adapted the MyPyramid menu.

The press release announcing the study highlights that current dietary recommendations focus more on nutritional content than the degree or type of processing involved and that more research is needed.

The study is published in Direct science.

One of the problems with evaluating UPFs, said the study’s lead author Dr. Julie M. Hess, who works as a researcher for the USDA’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, is defining what they are.

Our study found that several nutrient-dense foods such as whole-grain breads, skim milk, canned fruit, tofu, fruit juices and canned fish could be considered ultra-processed, she said.

The researchers collaborated with external breeders who evaluated the foods under study according to their level of processing.

Some of the foods our selectors considered ultra-processed that didn’t end up on our menu were: almond butter, pork loin, smoked oysters, soy milk, cottage cheese, nonfat Greek yogurt, lactose-free milk and apple juice, Dr. Hess said.

Some of the foods included on the menu included black bean soup, oatmeal, a chili baked potato, stir-fried tofu, and a steak dinner.

Some foods our selectors considered less processed that we didn’t include on our menu were: applesauce, canned peas, and canned mushrooms, she added.

In addition, some foods that the researchers believed did not fit into a DNA category were excluded from consideration, such as French fries, pickles, banana chips, sesame sticks and a plant-based meat burger.

Unexpected foods

Michelle Routhenstein, cardiology dietitian at, who was not involved in the study, said it’s also important to note that nutrient-dense foods like beans and legumes, for example, can be considered ultra-processed due to citric acid or additives added to preserve it. And while this is considered ultra-processed, it still confers health benefits that we need to weigh in the big picture as well.

It will not be possible to determine whether ultra-processed foods are healthy or not until the scientific community more clearly identifies what the term ultra-processed means.
Dr. Julie M. Hess

Knowing that the 2025 DGA Scientific Committee would discuss UPF, Dr. Hess’ team constructed the experimental menu according to the most commonly used system for identifying ultra-processed foods, the NOVA system.

My research is focused on identifying and evaluating strategies to help Americans meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which means I closely follow the activities and conversation related to the development of dietary guidance in the United States, recalled Dr. hess.

Routhenstein expressed concern that creating the menu requires nutritional skills that most people don’t have.

Routhenstein also questioned how realistic some menu items are. For example, strawberry kefir may contain xanthan gum, which is now considered ultra-processed. They’re getting honey roasted chickpeas, which contain an additive that’s now considered ultra-processed.

It’s important to meet people where they are, and depending on what can be accessible, this can be an invaluable tool for learning, she said.

However, that’s not a representation of what’s actually available to a person who relies on ultra-processed foods, which wouldn’t be available in a low-income neighborhood, Routhenstein said.

As loosely defined as UPF may be, there are widespread concerns regarding the health effects of foods widely considered to be ultra-processed.

Dr Marialaura Bonaccio of the IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed in Italy, also not involved in the study, said that the well-documented adverse health effects of UPF are not exclusively related to the poor nutritional content of these foods, but are likely triggered by non-nutritional factors, such as food additives, plastic contaminants, food matrix alteration, etc.

Doctor Bonaccio mentioned it own research where these concerns are discussed. Routhenstein noted that Dr. Bonaccio’s study that increasing UPF in one’s diet was associated with increased all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.

There are studies finding that UPF is independently associated with e.g. mortality cardiovascular diseaseAND certain tumorssaid Dr. Bonaccio.

Consideration of such health effects was beyond the scope of this study. However, Routhenstein cautioned that ultra-processed foods, whether they’re following a vegan, vegetarian, etc. diet, cause an increase in cystatin C, an inflammatory biomarker that increases the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke.

In light of this, a work focused exclusively on the nutritional quality of the UPF, which of course could also be adequate in some cases, is completely misleading in my view, said Doctor Bonaccio.

Although Dr. Hess said there is no consistent or easy-to-apply definition of what an ultra-processed food is, both Dr. Bonaccio and Routhenstein have recommended that people consume fewer ultra-processed foods unless and until further research suggests otherwise.

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