Not all ultra-processed foods are bad for you. Here’s what you should know, according to nutritionists.

Flavored yogurt is a type of ultra-processed food but it also contains calcium.
Flavored yogurt is a type of ultra-processed food but it also contains calcium. (Getty Images)

Processed foods and ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are gaining widespread attention in the news — most of which is negative. Recent studies have linked a diet high in UPFs with an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and dementia. While discussions often focus on the adverse impacts of these foods, there may be some exceptions worth exploring. Nearly all foods require some form of processing, but what exactly distinguishes processed foods from UPFs? And can any of these highly-processed options offer nutritional benefits? Yahoo Life asked dietitians to help clarify the role that processed and ultra-processed foods can play in a healthy diet. Here’s what they had to say.

What are processed vs. ultra-processed foods?

Though commonly used, the terms “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods lack standardized definitions. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed foods are any foods altered from their natural forms through methods such as chopping, heating, freezing, pasteurizing and juicing. The NOVA classification system, commonly used for food categorization, specifies that processed foods involve the addition of salt, oil, sugar or other substances to preserve and make foods more appetizing. Examples include bacon, tinned vegetables, beans and fish; fruit in syrup; and freshly-made bread and cheese.

UPFs, on the other hand, are packaged as ready-to-eat or -heat options, and typically contain several manufactured ingredients, such as additives (preservatives, stabilizers, flavor enhancers, bulking agents, etc.), sugars, fats (particularly saturated fat) and salt. These items, such as flavored yogurts, juices, packaged snacks, carbonated sodas, processed meats and instant noodles, are designed to be convenient, shelf-stable and appealing. Essentially, most store-bought foods fall into these categories.

Are all ultra-processed foods bad for you?

“Not all UPFs are created equal,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, founder of and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook, tells Yahoo Life. “Some UPFs are nutrient dense, meaning they are a source of vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components with limited added sugar, sodium and saturated fat.”

Despite negative associations, many foods considered healthy and essential for a balanced diet fall within processed food categories. Christine Byrne, dietitian and owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition in Raleigh, N.C., tells Yahoo Life that eliminating all UPFs isn’t necessary to maintain health. A long ingredient list with items that resemble chemicals also does not automatically mean a food is unhealthy. In fact, plenty of UPFs contain beneficial nutrients.

What are some benefits with processed and ultra-processed foods?

Not all processed foods are unhealthy. In some cases, the act of processing a food can enhance its nutritional profile. “For example, breakfast cereal is fortified with several B vitamins, iron, calcium and sometimes vitamin D, because prior to fortification many people weren't getting enough of these nutrients from whole foods alone,” explains Byrne. Plant-based milk alternatives cater to those sensitive to dairy, while decaffeinated coffee is an option for those unable to tolerate caffeine.

Even infant formula is classified as an ultra-processed food. “However, it is a critical source of nutrition for many infants whose immature digestive systems cannot tolerate whole foods,” explains registered dietitian Edwina Clark.

Even UPFs containing added sugar, salt and saturated fat can still offer nutritional value. For instance, despite added sugar, chocolate milk remains a rich source of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are essential for bone health. “Various studies show that consuming chocolate milk after exercise can promote muscle-building and recovery,” Clark tells Yahoo Life.

Some research even points to health promoting properties of UPFs. A meta-analysis of about 200,000 U.S. adults found that cereals, dark and whole-grain breads, packaged snacks, fruit-based products, yogurt and dairy-based desserts were associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, likely due to additional fiber, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals from those foods. Another study suggests that the protective effects of calcium in yogurt and dairy-based desserts may offset the harmful effects of added sugar, particularly in relation to colorectal cancer risk among women.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center conducted a study demonstrating that a mostly UPFs diet can still meet healthy diet standards. Evaluated with the Healthy Eating Index to measure diet quality against the 2020 to 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the meal plan scored 86 out of 100, surpassing the average American diet score of 58. However, it’s worth noting that the UPFs diet exceeded sodium limits, fell short on vitamin D, vitamin E and choline and lacked enough whole grains.

Should you avoid UPFs?

Experts agree that avoiding all UPFs isn’t necessary, and can even lead to added stress, guilt and cravings. “Nutritionally speaking, the most important thing is to eat enough and to eat a variety of foods that offer a variety of nutrients,” says Byrne. While whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are a great way to meet nutrient needs, ultra-processed options can help diversify the diet and fill in nutritional gaps.

Also, not everyone has access to or can afford to buy fresh, whole foods. “It's important to acknowledge that social determinants of health play a role in our ability to access and afford fresh and minimally processed foods,” Harris-Pincus says. In food deserts, people may only have access to types of processed foods for the majority of their calories. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also highlights that only 1 in 10 individuals consumes the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Consuming processed foods such as canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can address these concerns.

However, when it comes to UPFs such as soda, cake and chips, which are higher in added sugar, salt and saturated fat, Clark advises not including them as a daily habit. “These foods can offer enjoyment and nostalgia, however, consuming them in excess may contribute to health problems,” she says.

A good rule of thumb, Harris-Pincus adds: “I typically recommend limiting UPFs that do not provide protein, fiber and essential nutrients to about 10% or less of total calorie needs.”

Final takeaways

“It's important to remember that ultra-processed foods is a huge category that includes everything from cereal to breakfast sausages to gummy bears,” notes Byrne. “If you’re worried about UPFs, you can focus on small ways to add more whole and minimally-processed foods to your day.”

But in general, says Harris-Pincus, “no single food is good or bad, and food should not have a moral value.” Instead, it’s important to focus on a balanced approach to nutrition, incorporating a variety of foods into your diet to support your overall health and well-being.

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.