Yes, a Healthy Diet Can Include Ultra-Processed Foods

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How many times have you heard that it’s best to eat “whole” foods or to avoid “processed” ones? There’s even a system that designates some foods as “ultra-processed,” which calls to mind chemical concoctions made in a lab that we shcould do our best to avoid. But as I’ve written before, the degree to which a food is “processed” doesn’t tell you how healthy it is. And now scientists at the USDA have taken steps toward proving that.

What is an ultra-processed food?

“Ultra-processed” is not a category based on nutrition. It’s based on the NOVA scale, which counts a food as ultra-processed if it includes additives you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen, or if it’s sold in a ready-to-eat state. This results in some nonsensical contradictions: Liquor is ultra-processed, but wine is not. A burger is ultra-processed, but a steak with a roll on the side is not even if those two meals are made with the exact same ingredients.

And the truth is, a lot of foods that we buy at the grocery store meet the definition of “ultra-processed,” even if they have relatively few ingredients and are good sources of protein, veggies, whole grains, or other things that we should be getting more of. So scientists at the USDA created a three-day menu that meets nearly all the dietary guidelines (as in, it’s better than what most of us eat on a daily basis) out of ingredients that can be found in almost all of the “ultra-processed” NOVA category.

By the way, even though fitfluencers like to pooh-pooh the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they’re actually a pretty solid structure for building a healthy diet. We have a rundown of the 2020 guidelines here (they’re updated every five years, so that’s the current edition) and it includes hard-to-argue-with statements like:

The core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:

• Vegetables of all types—dark greens; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables

• Fruits, especially whole fruits

• Grains, at least half of which are whole grains

• Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives

• Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products

• Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

What ultra-processed foods can be included in a healthy diet?

So what does a healthy diet made of ultra-processed food look like? the USDA’s sample menu includes:

  • A breakfast burrito made with canned beans, liquid egg whites, shredded cheese, and a store-bought tortilla
  • Instant oatmeal with raisins
  • Store-bought salsa and guacamole
  • A sandwich made with deli turkey on wheat bread
  • Strawberry yogurt
  • Rotisserie chicken
  • Orangejuice
  • Ultra-filtered milk (like Fairlife)

All told, 91% of the calories come from foods that NOVA considers to be ultra-processed. (You can see all the meals here.) And when rating it in terms of what would count as a “healthy” diet, the sample menu met the most criteria. It has slightly higher sodium than is ideal, and not enough of the grains were whole grains–so it’s not perfect, but it’s darn close. In conclusion, the scientists wrote, “Healthy dietary patterns can include most of their energy from UPF [ultra-processed foods], still receive a high diet quality score, and contain adequate amounts of most macro- and micronutrients.” So fitfluencers and diet gurus should relax. But we already knew that.