Processed and ultraprocessed foods are not the same

Anything that’s been canned, frozen, ready to cook, precooked, dried or packaged is considered processed

Thanks to the obsession with diet culture, social media users have continued to raise awareness about toxic food culture. The latest debate focuses on whether to ditch or keep processed and ultraprocessed foods.

Processed foods aren’t necessarily bad for you and can be enjoyed on a regular basis, as opposed to ultraprocessed foods. A 2022 study reveals about 60% of the food we eat is heavily processed and has steadily increased in the past two decades.

Here’s the difference between processed and ultraprocessed foods.

Processed foods

Although we like to think we purchase healthier options — even when substituting — the truth is, we buy more processed foods than we’re aware of. Anything that’s been canned, frozen, ready to cook, precooked, dried or packaged is considered processed, and that includes breakfast cereals.

Just because it’s processed doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, however. Foods “may be processed to prevent spoilage so it stays safe to eat for a longer period of time,” registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty told Today.

Some other reasons foods are processed is to enhance taste and to make them “more nutritious by adding vitamins and minerals,” she added.

Ultraprocessed foods

According to a 2022 study, ultraprocessed foods are where 60% of our calories come from. These foods go through various processes before purchase, and they contain preservatives, colors, emulsifiers and additives. Typically, these items are a go-to snack or quick fix meal like hot dogs, soda, candy, chips, cookies, some packaged soups, chicken nuggets and more.

“These food-based products are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, derived from food components or synthesized in laboratories,” dietitian Lindsey Wohlford told the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.


A 2024 study published in the BMJ used data from 45 analyses within the past three years, giving researchers access to the effects of ultraprocessed foods and declining health on more than 9 million participants.

The findings revealed ultraprocessed foods were associated with an increase of cardiovascular disease-related death, Type 2 diabetes and an increase of anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid buying ultraprocessed foods because of cravings, having more than one mouth to feed and being strapped for cash. When it comes to getting the most nutrition in your meals, experts recommend looking at the ingredients before purchasing.