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Ultra-processed foods: are they bad for your health?

Almost all foods on supermarket shelves have been processed in some way or another. So, which processed foods are heart-healthier than others?

Woman reading nutrition label in the supermarket

What is food processing?

Food processing is anything that changes the natural form of a food. It can be as basic as:

  • freezing i.e. frozen vegetables
  • canning i.e. canned tuna
  • drying i.e. dried lentils
  • baking i.e. roasted nuts
  • milling i.e. wholemeal flour.

Manufactured foods have varying levels of processing. Some examples of more highly processed foods include puffed rice breakfast cereals, snack foods like crackers and biscuits, processed meat products, ready meals and sauces.

Some foods are processed to enable them to be used in other ways, i.e. olives can be pressed to make olive oil, and milk needs to be pasteurised to make it safe to drink.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ comes from the NOVA food classification system, developed by nutrition researchers in Brazil. The NOVA classification categorises foods according to their level of processing.

The four categories within the classification are:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: This includes produce such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds as well as animal products like milk, fish, pulses and eggs. These have no added ingredients and haven’t been altered much from their natural state.
  • Processed ingredients: This includes foods that are added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves, such as salt, sugar and oils.
  • Processed foods: These are foods that are made by combining foods from groups 1 and 2, which are altered in a way that home cooks could do themselves. They include foods such as jam, pickles, tinned fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses.
  • Ultra-processed foods: Ultra-processed foods typically have more than one ingredient that you never or rarely find in a kitchen. They also tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf life. Examples include commercially manufactured versions of soft drinks, biscuits, ice creams, pizza, some breakfast cereals, manufactured bread and fruit-flavoured yoghurt.

Why are some ultra-processed foods considered bad for our health?

Since the NOVA food classification system was established, nutrition researchers worldwide have increasingly linked ultra-processed foods with a range of health outcomes such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

While there is a growing body of research showing the harmful effects of these foods on health, there are no trials or direct correlation around exactly how ultra-processed foods are causing poor health.

There are some characteristics in ultra-processed foods that are likely to increase the risk of heart disease, such as high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat. The degree of processing also means the foods don’t fill us up or they displace healthier foods in our diet. However, factors such as additives, the degree of food processing, and the combination of nutrient and processing factors and their impact on health are less well understood.

What processed foods can I eat for heart health?

The NOVA definition of ultra-processed foods includes a wide range of foods – some healthy foods and some that are less healthy.

Fruit-flavoured yoghurt, commercially made whole grain bread, pasta sauce and certain breakfast cereals fall into the ultra-processed food definition, however, these foods are staple foods for many people and can be part of a heart-healthy diet.

They are quite different from other foods that are also defined as ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, biscuits and other processed snack foods which are often much higher in salt, sugar and saturated fat.

What is the Heart Foundation doing to make the processed food we eat healthier?

Since 2007 the Heart Foundation has worked with food companies to set reformulation targets and encouraged companies to gradually reduce salt and sugar in many processed food categories.

The targets reflect the technical role that salt and sugar play in different food products and encourage companies to make positive changes to many processed foods.

For more information about the food reformulation programme and the success we have had had in supporting lower salt and sugar level in foods, see here.

How do I choose healthier processed and ultra-processed foods?

Select foods that are closest to their original state. There is a continuum with many products where a food can be consumed in its natural form and where it has gone through different stages of processing.

1 . For example, corn can be eaten cooked from its natural state, or canned, frozen, popped or through to a highly processed snack product with other ingredients.

A long ingredients list full of chemical-sounding words is a sign that a food is highly processed. Try to select processed foods that have shorter ingredient lists, and foods where you recognise the ingredients it contains.

2 . Check food labels by looking at the Nutrition Information Panel. Look for products which contain the least amount of saturated fat, sugar and sodium (salt) per 100g. When it comes to the 3Ss (saturated fat, sugar and sodium) – LESS is BEST. For example, rolled oats contain 5mg of sodium per 100g whereas some breakfast cereals contain around 400mg of sodium per 100g.

What foods should I be eating more of for my heart health?

Try to eat plenty of whole foods. Whole foods are foods that resemble how they’re found in nature. Some foods like whole grain bread, plain milk and canned tomatoes have been through some processing, however, most of the nutritional benefits remain and they’re still a heart-healthy option.

Some examples of whole foods and foods with minimal processing are:

  • fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit
  • dried, canned and frozen beans and legumes like lentils and chickpeas
  • whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley and quinoa
  • fresh and frozen poultry and meat
  • fresh, frozen and canned fish and seafood
  • milk and plain yoghurt
  • eggs
  • nuts and seeds.


Try to aim for 40% of the food in your weekly shop to be vegetables and fruit. Shop seasonally and look for specials. Your produce doesn’t always have to be fresh – canned or frozen veges and fruit are great options too.

As well as supermarkets, fruit and vegetable stores, local markets, bulk bin stores and butchers are also great places to stock up on whole foods and they can often be cheaper too. Buying whole foods can work out cheaper because the foods you buy are more filling than highly processed foods.

Be realistic when it comes to choosing foods

Categorising foods based on their level of processing is only one way of assessing the healthiness of a food. There are many other factors that need to be considered such as the nutrients it contains, what the food is and how it is eaten in the context of the overall diet.

Although it’s ideal to base meals and snacks around as many whole foods as possible, the reality is that many processed foods are also convenient. Be realistic and focus on the bigger picture.

Think about balance and variety and your overall diet. Consider making some switches to less processed options or cooking more from scratch with more whole and less processed foods.

There is no single group of food that improves our heart health – it’s our overall diet. Eating more whole plant foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds will do wonders for your health and risk of heart disease, but there is still a place for some processed foods as part of a heart-healthy dietary pattern.


More advice on heart healthy eating

Dave Monro, NZRD

Dave Monro, NZRD

Chief Advisor Food & Nutrition

I completed chef training while studying nutrition/ dietetics and enjoy combining both of these elements to develop practical solutions for families to eat healthier.