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Ultra-Processed Foods: Impact on Mortality and Brain Health 

Ultra-Processed Foods: Impact on Mortality and Brain Health 

Over time, the food industry has undergone changes that have had an influence on the way we eat. However, the convenience we enjoy comes with a price: Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs).

In the U.S., ultra processed food makes up around 57% of daily calories, on average. These types of foods contain harmful additives and synthetic ingredients that can have negative effects on our bodies.

UPFs not only contribute to weight gain but also have been linked to illness, disease, poor mental health, and even premature death.

In contrast, you may have eaten more minimally processed food on Thanksgiving than you do the rest of the year. Why not extend that practice into every week — for your health and for your taste buds?

In this blog post, we will delve into what exactly UPFs are, how they affect our health, and the ways in which they differ from whole foods and processed foods.

We will provide examples of UPFs for self-assessment purposes and offer practical tips on how to avoid them in your diet. 

a heap of processed food, donuts, hamburgers, pizza, chips, etc.

Understanding What Ultra Processed Foods Are

Ultra processed foods, which include fast food, ready meals, breakfast cereals, and soda, are notorious for being highly processed and contain a vast number of ingredients.

These types of foods often contain additives and preservatives that help to prolong their shelf life and improve their flavor. However, they also tend to be high in calories, added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats.

Regular consumption of ultra processed foods has been linked to numerous health problems. Therefore, it is recommended to limit the intake of these foods and opt for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins instead.

Dangers of Ultra Processed Foods

Ultra processed foods make up over 50% of food consumption in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. In Mexico, Chile, and Brazil, it accounts for one-fifth to one-third of food consumption and is growing rapidly.

Researchers found that people on ultra processed diets ate at a faster rate – and ate an additional 500 calories more per day than people who were eating unprocessed foods.

“On average, participants gained 0.9 kilograms, or 2 pounds while they were on the ultra processed diet and lost an equivalent amount on the unprocessed diet,” the NIH noted.

A study presented at the 2023 European Society of Cardiology Congress tracked 10,000 Australian women for 15 years. It found that those with high amounts of ultra processed food in their diet were 39% more likely to develop high blood pressure.

Another analysis of 10 studies involving over 325,000 men and women showed that those who consumed the most ultra processed food had a 24% higher risk of serious heart and circulatory events.

Each 10 percent rise in daily intake of ultra processed food was linked with a 6% increase in heart event risk.

Researchers looked at 541,160 people in the Brazilian population between the ages of 30 and 69 who died in 2019.

Their analysis shows that consuming ultra processed foods was responsible for 10.5% of all premature deaths in this age demographic.

Soda, for instance, is linked to around 184,000 adult deaths per year worldwide.

How Processed Foods Lead to Poor Mental Health

Processed foods are linked to poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety. Chemical additives, preservatives, and lack of nutrients in these foods negatively impact brain health and cognitive function.

Optimal nutrition is crucial for your brain. Choose whole foods with rich ingredients to support good mental well-being. Reducing processed food consumption significantly improves overall mental health.

Opt for fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for a meaningful difference in your well-being.

healthy food on one side, junk food on another, hand selecting a carrot

Whole Foods vs Processed Foods vs Ultra Processed Foods

Understanding the differences between whole foods, processed foods, and ultra processed foods is important in order to make smarter food choices.

Whole foods are foods that are intact in their original form and have undergone either no processing or minimal processing. Whole foods have most or all of their nutrient density intact (vitamins, minerals, and fiber).

Examples include grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, fresh vegetables, wild-caught fish, yogurt, raw milk, raw nuts and seeds, and steel-cut oats (zero processing) or old-fashioned oats (minimal processing for quicker cooking), intact grains such as quinoa and wild rice, dry beans and legumes.

In other words, things in their “wild,” natural state. Processed foods are foods that have gone through some kind of processing from their original natural state — including the addition of salt or sugar.

They may also include additives to ensure freshness. Examples of processed foods include fruit juice, refined flour, canned beans, canned tuna, canned tomatoes, fish, fresh bread (aka, farmer’s market bread), cheese, and pre-cut or frozen vegetables.

Ultra processed foods are those that have undergone extensive transformation or modification from the original food. They often contain mere extractions of the original food that may not even be recognizable as the original.

Ultra processed foods are defined as industrial formulations of processed food substances such as oils, fats, sugars, starch and protein isolates.

They contain little to no whole food and usually contain flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, and other cosmetic additives to make the foods palatable or hyper-palatable.

These foods are usually based upon a few high-yield plant foods such as soy, corn, wheat, sugar cane or beet.

They contain little or no whole food value or nutrition and contain a large number of substances that can derail your health and pose allergy problems also.

Ultra processed foods include sodas, nearly all chips, crackers, biscuits, store-bought cookies, candies, mass-produced breads and buns, hot dogs, poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks,” powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles and desserts, frozen French fries, “plant-based meats,” breakfast cereals, and baking mixes.

Plus anything from a fast-food restaurant and in fact, anything from most restaurants. If you see deliveries from a Sysco truck, they’re serving pre-made, packaged, ultra processed foods.

Choosing whole foods over processed and ultra processed options improves your health. Fresh fruits, vegetables,lean proteins, and whole grains provide essential nutrients without chemicals and unhealthy additives.

Make informed food choices for a balanced diet and good health. Remember the importance of whole foods for your wellness when grocery shopping.

a man eating a fresh tomato off the vine

The Significant Differences and Their Impact on Health

The impact of whole foods, processed foods, and ultra processed foods on health is significant. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains are unprocessed and naturally packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Processed foods undergo alterations for taste and shelf life but can be high in calories, additives, and preservatives. Ultra processed foods are a real concern as they are highly processed with chemical additives and they lack nutritional value.

Prioritize whole foods and reduce processed and ultra processed foods to promote better health. By making small changes to your diet and incorporating whole foods, you can greatly impact your health.

What Are the 5 Most Processed Foods to Avoid?

Processed foods can be convenient and tasty, but they often contain additives, preservatives, and unhealthy ingredients. Here are five highly processed foods that you may want to limit or avoid in your diet:

  1. Sugary drinks: Many sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit juices, are high in added sugars and offer little nutritional value. Opt for water, herbal tea, or homemade fruit-infused water instead.
  2. Packaged snacks: Many packaged snacks like chips, crackers, and cookies are loaded with unhealthy fats, sodium, and artificial ingredients. Look for healthier alternatives like air-popped popcorn or homemade trail mix with nuts and dried fruits. Or bake your own.
  3. Fast food burgers: Fast food burgers are often made from low-quality meat that is high in saturated fats and sodium. Try making homemade burgers with lean meats instead. Make meatballs ahead of time and freeze. Serve with homemade sauerkraut or fresh cooked veggies instead.
  4. Frozen dinners: Frozen dinners often contain high levels of sodium, unhealthy fats, and preservatives. If you’re short on time, consider batch cooking healthy meals at home and freezing them for later use.
  5. Processed deli meats: Deli meats like ham, salami, and hot dogs are typically high in sodium and may contain added preservatives like nitrates. Opt for fresh cuts of lean meats as a healthier alternative. Cook a larger piece of quality meat and then slice thinly and use in place of deli meats. Your wallet will thank you also. 🙂 

dad, mom, and child cooking in the kitchen

Practical Tips on Avoiding Ultra Processed Foods

To improve your health and avoid ultra processed foods, follow these practical tips:

  • Choose whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
  • Read food labels carefully and avoid products with list of ingredients of more than 5 items.
  • Watch out for additives and preservatives commonly found in ultra processed foods.
  • Avoid ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, isolated soy protein, gluten, casein, invert sugar, maltodextrin, hydrogenated oil, and thickeners.
  • Opt for options with fewer ingredients for a safer and less processed choice.
  • Cook meals at home more often with fresh ingredients. Try one new recipe a week.

Cooking meals at home gives you more control over what you eat. One major change in dietary patterns in the last 70 years has been the decline of home cooked meals, and the increase in ultra processed foods.

Choose whole grains and legumes over processed cereals and ready meals for a healthier option. Also, be mindful of your consumption of soda, junk food, and fast food as they can increase the risk of health issues.

Ditching soda can greatly benefit your health. By following these tips, you can reduce your intake of processed foods and improve your overall health.

extended family walking outdoors in the fall


In conclusion, consumption of ultra processed foods has been linked to numerous health issues and even early mortality. It is important to understand what these foods are and how they can negatively impact our bodies and minds.

From poor mental health to other serious health risks, the dangers of processed foods are undeniable. Choosing whole foods over processed and ultra processed options is crucial for maintaining your health.

Ultimately, cutting out these harmful foods may be the key to better health and a longer, more vibrant life. Let’s prioritize our well-being and nourish our bodies with wholesome, nutritious foods.

Be sure to watch for the upcoming series on various popular diets and their pros and cons.

But remember that simply making a switch from processed and ultra processed foods to whole foods could transform your health. So make that your first step starting today!

question and answer graphic

Questions and Answers

What are ultra processed foods?

Ultra processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. These foods are heavily processed and contain multiple ingredients, often including additives and preservatives.

These foods are typically low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium. Examples include packaged snacks, sugary cereals, processed meats, and fast food.

What counts as ‘processed meat’ ?

Processed meat is any meat that has been modified to enhance flavor, extend shelf life, or change texture. Examples include ham, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, and deli meats.

Why are ultra processed foods so bad for us?

Ultra processed foods are unhealthy because they tend to be high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, salt, artificial ingredients, and additives while also being low in essential nutrients.

The combination of these factors can contribute to a variety of health issues, including obesity and other chronic conditions.



Ultra-Processed Foods: Impact on Mortality and Brain Health 

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