7 foods you had no idea were actually ultra-processed

While it's easy to identify junk food as being ultra-processed, what about the rest of your grocery cart?

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 7, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)

Groceries in the back of a car (Getty Images/Paul Taylor)
Groceries in the back of a car (Getty Images/Paul Taylor)

The concept of ultra-processed foods is becoming more well-known American grocery shoppers.  The phrase refers to foods that contain additives, including artificial dyes and flavors, and may be made from from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches and hydrogenated fats. It's become such a prominent topic that The New York Times even released a "Do you know how to spot foods that are ultra-processed?" quiz back in May.

I do think, though, that for some, there's a sort of smug self-satisfaction in thoughts like, "Ew, ultraprocessed foods! Good thing I don't eat (fill in the blank here)." But what's tricky here, of course, is that the realm of ultra-processed food contains a truly massive amount of foods.

Yes, it counts soda and chips and candies and the like, plus frozen, ready-to-eat meals and fast foods, but there's also a lot more.Your fancy-schmancy $9 watermelon juice, your high-end lattes, your protein bars, your specialty iced teas, that convenient item you picked up from a top-tier specialty grocery store — it's all ultra-processed.

Why is this important? Because consuming ultra-processed foods comes with potential health risks, contributing to disease and early death

As with anything, it can be odd to re-conceptualize your world view (or, in this case, your fridge), but it's important, really. Next time you go shopping, take along this list of seven unexpected — and perhaps seemingly healthy foods — that are actually ultra-processed. 

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Cereals, granola and muesli
A Salon colleague once told me that "granola is nothing more than broken cookies in a bowl." Also, if we're being honest with ourselves: it's evident that there's buckets of sugar in some of those uber-popular breakfast cereals.
"You can start by mixing your sugary cereal with a whole grain, low sugar cereal," wrote Pandora Dewan at Newsweek. "Ultimately little swaps like this will go a long way towards helping you improve the quality of your diet." Or, if you're especially looking to avoid UPFs — just nix the store-bought cereal altogether.
Protein bars, shakes and powders
"Many foods formulated for health purposes like weight loss or added protein frequently undergo high levels of processing and contain a laundry list of not-so-healthy ingredients," Sarah Garone, a registered nutritionist and author of the blog A Love Letter to Food, told Newsweek. "Many protein bars, weight loss shakes, and energy drinks, for example, are extremely processed." Wild, huh? It's pretty counter-intuitive and also counter-productive, but alas, that's one of the ways that many products within the weight loss industry are made, bizarrely enough.
In this New York Times article , food historian Dr. Hannah Cutting-Jones described them like this: “By and large, they’re highly processed, high in sugar and salt — kind of a ‘Frankenfood.'" 
Plant-based milks
This is one of the biggest surprises for many. As Dewan writes, "Vegan meat substitutes are not necessarily much better and have often undergone numerous layers of processing to turn plant-based proteins into meaty mimics. In fact, as study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2021 found that vegetarians and vegans tended to eat more ultra-processed foods compared to meat eaters and pescatarians."
For many who eschew dairy for a litany of reasons, plant-based milks are a great solution, but its worth checking the ingredient list on your favorite brand to see what exactly is in the "milk" you are drinking. 
Sarah Garone at Healthline writes that while white bread is ultra-processed, both whole wheat bread (with minimal ingredients) and homemade whole wheat bread are much preferable choices. Sometimes, super subtle changes can actually cause huge shifts in your diet and your health — as well as sometimes your tastes and preferences — especially if we're talking about foods you eat especially often.
Barraclough reports that breads like sourdoughs and pumpernickels are often not as processed or mass produced. Also, take a peek at the shelf life. If it's oddly long, it's like the bread is ultra-processed, whereas if it's a shorter shelf life, it's probably less processed.
Margarine, coincidentally, was originally invented as a "healthier" alternative to the much-maligned butter. However, it is now recognized as being heavily processed. Margarine is often made from various oils in different combinations (and the same goes for may cream cheeses and others spreads, too), as opposed to butter, which typically just contains milk and salt. 
Energy drinks
Generally, be mindful of drinks at large: From protein shakes and sodas to coffee concoctions and many juices, most drinks are packed with sugar, artificial colors and flavors. 
Chad Larson and Mark Engelman write that "Because of their astronomical sugar content, energy drinks can severely alter the activity, diversity, and gene expression of intestinal bacteria. They can have negative cardiovascular, neurological, psychological, and GI effects, and they raise the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome."
Mashed potato flakes
Per Sarah Garone, mashed potato flakes are most certainly ultra-processed, while frozen potatoes are a smidge better and fresher and whole potatoes are obviously the ideal. Oftentimes, potato chips are also made from these dried potato flakes.
Generally, just steer clear. They don't offer much at all by way of nutrition and the amount of processing done to them essentially negates their negligible nutritional benefits.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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