Ultra-Processed Foods Might Be Healthier Than You’d Expect

Some of them, anyway

Beans and meatballs
Some ultra-processed foods are healthier than others.
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When eating with an eye on your health, there are a few groundrules to follow — and one common-sense adage is to avoid ingredients that have been overly processed. You’d think that this would apply even more to ultra-processed foods, a technical term referring to — in the words of the British Heart Foundation — food that “typically have more than one ingredient that you never or rarely find in a kitchen.” Except that the reality might be a little more complicated than that — as so many things involving nutrition in 2024 are.

A recent Business Insider article by Hilary Brueck quotes scientist Kevin Hall, who advised that ultra-processed foods that include healthy ingredients can still be good for your health. He pointed to three key ingredients to keep an eye out for: whole grains, legumes and vegtables without much starch. “I think you can still make educated choices,” Hall said.

Hall cited the NOVA system of classifying foods by their level of processing; NOVA 4 refers to ultra-processed foods. “Some of those NOVA 4 products are high in all the good things and low in a lot of the bad things that we traditionally think of in terms of nutrition,” he told Business Insider.

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Hall isn’t the only expert in the field making the case that some ultra-processed foods aren’t as unhealthy as that designation would suggest. Last month, the New York Times cited Maya Vadiveloo of the University of Rhode Island in an article on ultra-professed foods. Vadiveloo told the Times‘ Alice Callahan that some foods in this category — including, in Callahan’s words, “whole grain breads, flavored yogurts and infant formulas” — contain healthy nutrients.

Being aware of where a meal came from is one step towards staying healthy, but it’s not the only one. And knowing what to look for on the label of a prepared meal can also go a long way towards eating better.

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