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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secret Shopper: How do I know if a food is ‘ultra-processed’?

How to understand ‘ultra-processed’ long lists of ingredients
Everything your customer needs to know about "ultra-processed" foods should be on a food label; employees just have to learn what to look for.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: How can I know whether a food is ultra-processed?

Retailer: Looking at the ingredients list on the package is a pretty good indication. If you see a long list of ingredients, that generally means the food is highly processed.

NFM: Are ultra-processed foods always unhealthy?

Retailer: Not necessarily. Sometimes it just takes a lot of ingredients to make a food—and not necessarily bad ones. I think it’s more about what those ingredients are. If they come from real foods, they may be very good for you. If they are chemicals or artificial stuff, then not so much.

How did this retailer do?

Annette Maggi, M.S., RDN, LD, FAND, president of Annette Maggi & AssociatesOur expert educator: Annette Maggi, M.S., RDN, LD, FAND, president of Annette Maggi and Associates

Many foods go through some processing before they get to the grocery store. Even bread and baby carrots are processed—and freezing, drying, canning and cooking are all considered methods of processing. But ultra-processed foods are those derived from food components with little resemblance to whole food and may contain additives that imitate or enhance sensory attributes of foods. Ultra-processed foods are often found in the snack, beverage and ready-to-eat meal categories, and while convenient, they may have poor nutrition quality. Given these definitions, this retailer mostly got it right.

However, although foods with long ingredient lists often have limited positive nutrition value (think fiber, fruits and veggies) and are high in negative nutrients like sodium, saturated fat and added sugar, it’s important to not rely solely on the length of the ingredient list when purchasing foods. After all, if you were to build an ingredient list for homemade lasagna, it would likely be as long as the one on frozen lasagna at the grocery store. By contrast, sugar-sweetened beverages have short ingredient lists. When assessing a food or beverage for healthfulness, combining the list of ingredients with the Nutrition Facts panel is the best approach.

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