Ultra-Processed Foods May Have a Place in a Balanced Diet, Study Says

woman in snack aisle

Key Takeaways

  • New research indicates consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) increased among all adults in the United States from 2001-2018.
  • Over the same period, consumption of minimally-processed foods declined.
  • Experts say some ultra-processed foods can be included in an overall balanced diet.

New research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals that Americans' consumption of many ultra-processed foods (UPFs) has increased among all U.S. adults, and the trend crosses all socioeconomic backgrounds except Hispanics.

Yet, despite these increases nutrition experts indicate that some ultra-processed foods can be included in an overall balanced diet. Here is what you need to know about UPFs, the positive outcomes of the research, and what experts say about including UPFs in an overall balanced diet.

About the Study

The study examined the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from nearly 41,000 adults ages 19 older in the U.S. from 2001-2018, specifically, 24-hour food recalls. Researchers then calculated the percentage of calories contributed by minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.

The data revealed that consumption of UPFs increased from 53.5% to 57% percent of total calories, while consumption of minimally processed foods decreased significantly. Specifically, the UPFs with higher rates of consumption were instant and canned soups, cakes, cookies, pies, meats, and fish items as well as frozen or shelf-stable meals.

Sandwiches, hamburgers, and frozen pizzas also showed an increase in consumption. However, the study revealed a significant decrease in consumption of items such as soda, breakfast cereals, bread, ice cream, and ultra-processed soy products such as meatless patties and fish sticks.

Researchers note that these trends coincide with some positive data from previous studies as well including the fact that the intake of added sugars decreased from 1999-2016 while caloric intake from sugar-sweetened beverages decreased by nearly half from 2003-2016.

Including UPFs in a Balanced Diet

If you are concerned about your family's consumption of UPFs, take a deep breath. According to nutrition experts, many of these foods can, in some instances, be part of an overall balanced diet as well as lead to increased overall nutrient density. Plus, many of these items are huge timesavers that allow busy families to put food on the table quickly.

Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, an associate clinical professor emeritus with the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and owner of Cut to The Chase Nutrition, indicates that shelf-stable meals, specifically frozen pizza, can serve in this capacity.

Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND

The types of UPFs also changed. There was significantly less soda for instance, and more frozen, shelf-stable meals, sandwiches, and frozen pizza. This may not be a bad thing.

— Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND

"Yes, UPFs increased during this period, but the types of UPFs also changed," Dr. Ayoob says. "There was significantly less soda for instance, and more frozen, shelf-stable meals, sandwiches, and frozen pizza. This may not be a bad thing." 

For instance, utilizing frozen pizza—that's basically bread, cheese, and tomato sauce—could be positive, he says. Pairing pizza with a simple salad and bowl of fruit could round out the meal.

"More consumption of frozen and shelf-stable dinners could suggest a better intake of complete meals that include more veggies and fruits," says Dr. Ayoob. "There are also many more pizza options that include at least some whole grain, yet these still get counted as UPFs." 

Sandwiches and burgers were also on the rise. But according to the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, sandwiches and burgers are the largest contributors of protein, calcium, potassium, and fiber.

They also are the number two contributor of whole grain, dairy, and vitamin D; and the third-largest source of vegetables in the American diet. With this in mind, consider both a vehicle for increased produce consumption.

The researchers noted that cereal consumption is declining according to the latest data, which Dr. Ayoob says is not necessarily a good thing. For adults 18 years and older that eat cereal, they consume 1.35 servings of fruit compared to adults 18 years and older who do not eat cereal, who consume just 0.9 servings of fruit. Moreover, the inclusion of cereal in your diet can actually decrease intake of both fat and sodium.

"Breakfast cereals, even with whole grains are considered UPF in this study but are usually eaten with milk and fruit, so the fact that they declined could be seen as undesirable," he says.

The Big Picture

Should we aim to consume more minimally-processed foods, which the most recent data shows we are eating less of? While this is a well-intentioned goal, it is not one that is steeped in reality for everyone. In fact, it may be a bit lofty for the majority of people, given time constraints, budgets, accessibility, and all the other stresses of balancing work and home life.

Shawn Portwood, MS

We live in a world where food deserts exist, where a single mom with no car must load her two kids on a city bus and take two transfers to get to a grocery store, which is not always feasible.

— Shawn Portwood, MS

"In an ideal world, this would mean that everyone would eat fresh fruits and vegetables picked from their own garden in their backyard or from their neighbor’s farm at the peak of freshness and pair that fresh produce with locally sourced meat or seafood depending on where the person lived," says Shawn Portwood, MS, a graduate teaching assistant and graduate teaching instructor at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, School of Public Health, Department of Nutrition.

Unfortunately, life is not that simple. Not everyone has the same access or resources when it comes to meal planning and preparation. In fact, the world we live in is not even close to homogenous, Portwood says.

"We live in a world where food deserts exist, where a single mom with no car must load her two kids on a city bus and take two transfers to get to a grocery store which is not always feasible," he says. "Her alternative is to go to the [corner market] and stock up on canned veggies, frozen meals, and convenient foods that are shelf-stable."

What This Means For You

Ultra-processed foods can be a driver for nutrient density and make pulling meals together easier, regardless of budget. There is no shame in leaning on shelf-stable and convenient items to help gather your loved ones around the table. If you would like assistance on how best to incorporate processed foods into your family's meal plan, talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Juul F, Parekh N, Martinez-Steele E, Monteiro CA, Chang VW. Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published online October 14, 2021. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab305

  2. Shan Z, Rehm CD, Rogers G, et al. Trends in dietary carbohydrate, protein, and fat intake and diet quality among us adults, 1999-2016JAMA. 2019;322(12):1178. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13771

  3. Marriott BP, Hunt KJ, Malek AM, Newman JC. Trends in intake of energy and total sugar from sugar-sweetened beverages in the united states among children and adults, nhanes 2003–2016Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2004.

  4. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

  5. Smith JD, Zhu Y, Vanage V, Jain N, Holschuh N, Hermetet Agler A. Association between ready-to-eat cereal consumption and nutrient intake, nutritional adequacy, and diet quality among infants, toddlers, and children in the national health and nutrition examination survey 2015–2016Nutrients. 2019;11(9):1989. doi:10.3390/nu11091989

By Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT
Nicole Rodriguez, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, resides in the metro New York area, where she offers nutrition counseling and fitness coaching to a diverse clientele. A consultant to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and New York Beef Council, she’s on the eternal quest for the best burger. Nicole proudly serves on the Bayer L.E.A.D. (leaders engaged in advancing dialogue) network, and as a partner in kind with the Produce For Better Health Foundation. Eager to inspire the next generation of bold, active, and compassionate entrepreneurs, Nicole serves as leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. In her spare time, you’ll find her browsing the grocery store aisles and working on her deadlift technique.