It’s Ultra! It’s Hyper! It’s Food?

What is ultra-processed or hyper-processed food? That is a trick question, because apparently some of the stuff, by the time we shove into our pie-holes, barely even qualifies as edible.

Here’s the thing… Pretty much all food is processed, if we go by the definition provided by the International Food Information Council, which includes any deliberate change that occurs before the food is ready to eat. In the most elementary sense, picking a berry from a bush could be construed as processing, because using the fingers to remove it and convey it to the mouth might legitimately be one definition.

Generally, the first degree of processing just makes the substance minimally edible, and still eligible for the category of “whole” food. This might include harvested grain, shelled nuts, and slaughtered chickens. The next stage of processing is still pretty benign, and includes pasteurizing, canning, drying, heating, and even refrigeration or freezing. The third stage is where the manufacturer jazzes up the product with artificial flavors and sweeteners, added fats, chemical preservatives, extra vitamins, etc.

Here is a little trade secret, revealed by registered dietitian nutritionist Carrie Gabriel, who explained,

I would love to say there is consensus on the definitions of processed and ultra-processed foods, but I’ve seen plenty of arguments on what qualifies as one or the other.

A few years back, the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, broke it down even further when a team of academics at the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition codified the NOVA Food Classification system. The middle group was divided, to represent processed culinary ingredients in one pile, and reasonably, sanely processed foods in another.

Anne-Marie Stelluti, R.D., listed some ultra-processing additives as “high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, modified starches, hydrogenated oils, and colorings, as well as de-foaming, bulking, and bleaching agents” as just a few examples. This was on behalf of the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, an organization that has realized the futility of trying to get manufacturers to halt the aggressive marketing of these “very addictive products,” and prefers instead to spend the energy on aggressively marketing real food.

Ultra-processed foods can be identified in a commercial setting by the lengthy lists of ingredients (depending on the country, if that nicety is even required) on the packaging, and often by the packaging itself, which is as garishly colorful and shiny as a Mardi Gras parade. The Brazilian team defined a group of ultra-processed foods which looks eerily familiar when compared, for example, with the surveys Dr. Pretlow has conducted about children’s “problem foods,” and here it is:

pop and fruit drinks
sweetened yogurt
sweet or savoury packaged snacks (e.g., cookies)
candies and cake mixes
mass-produced packaged breads and buns
margarines and spreads
breakfast cereals
cereal and energy bars
energy drinks
instant soups, sauces, and noodles
poultry and fish nuggets, hot dogs
many ready-to-heat products: pre-prepared pies, pasta, and pizza dishes

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What’s the Difference Between Processed and Ultra-Processed Food?,”, 10/18/18
Source: “Everything in moderation? Focusing on ultra-processed foods,”, undated
Image by Steve Jurvetson/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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