How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Blood Sugar

Julia Zakrzewski, RD, explains ultra-processed foods—nutritional value, effect on blood sugar, and how we can eat less of it in our journey to improving our health outcomes.

Person scooping flavored yogurt—an ultra-processed food—out of container

Ultra-processed foods are designed for convenience. They contain additives and preservatives along with added ingredients that do not promote health, like excess sugar, sodium, and saturated fat. Additionally, they are low in nutrients like fiber and protein. 

Ultra-processed foods are cheap, easy to prepare, and we eat too much of them.

In fact, research suggests that 57.9% of daily calories consumed in the United States are from ultra-processed foods, and approximately 90% of those calories are from added sugars9

Eating too much ultra-processed food can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health conditions.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? 

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are industrial formulations of food that contain five or more added ingredients8. This scientific article describes UPFs as hyper-palatable, easy to eat at any time, and with a long shelf life12

How Is A Food Ultra-Processed? 

UPFs undergo several rounds of processing. Every round removes valuable fiber and essential vitamins and micronutrients that support health. Without enough fiber, you are at risk of developing diverticulitis, other gut health disorders, increased cholesterol levels, and poor blood sugar control4

During several rounds of processing, non-nutritive ingredients are added to UPFs, and they are addictive to most people. The most common ingredients are different types of fat, salt, and refined sugars8. These all provide additional calories that can lead to undesired weight gain. 

You may develop cravings for these foods despite knowing they are not the best option for your health and blood sugar management. Don’t feel guilty if you suffer from these types of cravings: UPFs are designed to be very appealing12! The great news is that weaning yourself away from these products can reduce your cravings over time until, eventually, they go away completely. 

Processed Foods vs. Ultra-Processed Foods

NOVA is a food classification system designed by Public Health Experts11. It ranks foods by their degree of processing instead of their nutritional composition. The NOVA creators are the first to recognize that the types of processing a food receives may impact health more than just the ingredients.

There are four categories within the NOVA system11:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods 
  • Processed culinary ingredients 
  • Processed foods 
  • Ultra-processed food and drink products 

Processed foods are made by adding oil, salt, or sugar to packaged food11. Canned goods or cured products would classify as processed food as well. Ideally, you want to limit your intake of processed foods and choose whole foods whenever possible. 

It is worth noting that some processed foods, like canned fish or canned beans, are still considered nutritious. They are both lean sources of protein and salmon offers health-promoting omega-3-fatty acids. 

Ultra-processed foods contain oil, salt, sugar, additives, and preservatives11. These ingredients can enhance the color and appeal of the food, and preserve texture to enhance enjoyment while eating5

Similar to processed foods, different cooking techniques are considered as a form of processing. Anything deep-fried is considered ultra-processed, and intake of these foods should be limited. 

Examples of ultra-processed foods include11

  • Chocolate bars, cookies, and baked goods 
  • Potato chips, french fries, chicken wings, and chicken nuggets
  • Energy drinks, soda pop, fruit drinks, packaged smoothies
  • Flavored yogurts and flavored milk drinks
  • Prepared meals including frozen pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, lasagna-style dinners 
  • Instant soups, powdered products, including potato or meal replacements 

All of these options can sound appetizing when you feel higher than normal levels of stress. Ongoing stress can cause inflammation in the body and it can seriously get in the way of your health goals. 

When you are able, seek out calming and relaxing activities to help manage your stress. It will help your health overall and can help you better control your blood sugars. 

How Do Ultra-processed Foods Affect Blood Sugar? 

Preliminary research suggests that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of developing type two diabetes13. Those who are not diagnosed with type two diabetes, but still want to stay on top of their blood sugar levels, should limit their intake of UPFs. 

UPFs are often low in fiber and high in added sugars9. Without fiber present to slow down digestion, the sugar molecules have an opportunity to rapidly enter your bloodstream and potentially cause a spike in your sugar levels. 

It is easy to overconsume a UPF because they are lacking nutrition essentials that promote satiety. Most sweet UPFs are lacking fiber, but they are also lacking protein, which also helps slow down digestion and promote tighter control over blood sugar uptake. 

What Are The Health Risks Associated With Consuming Ultra-Processed Foods? 

The greatest health concern with UPFs is the direct link with weight gain3. Although living in a larger body does not mean you are unhealthy, weight gain is considered a risk factor for type two diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, and bone disease1.

Consuming large amounts of calories does not ensure you are meeting all your nutritional needs. By choosing UPFs, you may fill up on high energy low nutrition foods and miss out on staples your body needs to stay healthy. Everyday foods should include fresh fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats. 

UPFs are made with a mixture of artificial and natural preservatives. Artificial preservatives are chemical substances that are added to foods during processing. Research has found evidence that artificial preservatives can be harmful to your health, especially in children6,10. Limiting and avoiding these preservatives are recommended. 

How Can I Avoid Eating Ultra-Processed Foods? 

There are two things you can do to decrease your intake of ultra-processed food. 

The first is to move away from takeout and packaged foods and start making more homemade meals! You can not control which ingredients get used at a restaurant, but you can control what goes on in your own kitchen. 

Make the switch and opt to use whole ingredients to make as much as you can from scratch. This simple step will significantly reduce your reliance on UPFs, and put you back in the driver's seat for your health. 

To increase your chances of cooking at home, your best plan of action will be to plan your meals and build a grocery list to support your weekly menu. Remember to include whole grains, high fiber vegetables, and lean proteins to support a blood sugar-friendly diet. 

The second factor you need to consider is to learn how to read a nutrition food label! There will always be new products rolling onto the market, and sometimes a favorite item might change its recipe and introduce new ingredients. You always need to double-check the nutrition label before buying a product. 

On the nutrition label, you need to review the list of ingredients. UPFs contain high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, colorants, hydrolyzed proteins, and modified starches. If you see any of these listed on your favorite product, try to find a similar product that doesn't have these ingredients.  

What Are Some Healthier Alternatives to Ultra-processed Foods? 

Healthier alternatives to UPFs are foods rich in fiber and nutrients, with as few added ingredients as possible. Going back to basics in your pantry and your refrigerator is the best way to incorporate more of these foods. 

Examples of healthier alternatives: 

  • Unflavored yogurt instead of sweetened options
  • Whole vegetables that are served fresh or cooked with minimal oil, instead of deep-fried
  • Roasted meats cut for sandwiches instead of deli meats
  • Unsalted nuts that are seasoned with garlic powder and chili flakes instead of potato chips 
  • Fresh fruit to replace candies, sweets, and baked goods 
  • Whole grains instead of white flour products, including pasta and bread

Minimally processed foods often contain fewer calories than processed varieties, which can align with your health and weight management goals. Choose whole foods whenever possible to limit your intake of refined sugars and preservatives, it will make managing your blood sugars so much easier! 

Consider your digestive system a robust mechanism that has all the tools it needs to break down whole foods and absorb nutrients. To function at its best, it needs consistent nourishment from high-quality whole foods. If you need ideas on how to incorporate more of these types of foods into your diet, check out the Signos blog for more content!  

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References

  1. Center For Disease Control. (2022, March 18). Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity | Healthy Weight, Nutrition, and Physical Activity. CDC. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html         
  2. Gibney M. J. (2018). Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues. Current developments in nutrition, 3(2), nzy077. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389637/ 
  3. Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., Chung, S. T., Costa, E., Courville, A., Darcey, V., Fletcher, L. A., Forde, C. G., Gharib, A. M., Guo, J., Howard, R., Joseph, P. V., McGehee, S., Ouwerkerk, R., Raisinger, K., Rozga, I., … Zhou, M. (2019). Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell metabolism, 30(1), 67–77.e3. From, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31105044/ 
  4. Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Fiber | The Nutrition Source | Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/ 
  5. Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Food Processing and Health | The Nutrition Source | Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
  6. Leonardo Trasande, Rachel M. Shaffer, Sheela Sathyanarayana, COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, Jennifer A. Lowry, Samantha Ahdoot, Carl R. Baum, Aaron S. Bernstein, Aparna Bole, Carla C. Campbell, Philip J. Landrigan, Susan E. Pacheco, Adam J. Spanier, Alan D. Woolf; Food Additives and Child Health. Pediatrics August 2018; 142 (2): e20181408. From, https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/142/2/e20181408/37584/Food-Additives-and-Child-Health 
  7. Levy, R. B., Rauber, F., Chang, K., Louzada, M. C., Monteiro, C. A., Millet, C., & Vamos, E. P. (2021, 1 May). Ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes incidence: A prospective cohort study. Clinical Nutrition Journal, 50(5), P3608-3614. Science Direct. From,https://www.clinicalnutritionjournal.com/article/S0261-5614(20)30693-2/fulltext#articleInformation
  8. Lustig R. H. (2020). Ultraprocessed Food: Addictive, Toxic, and Ready for Regulation. Nutrients, 12(11), 3401. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7694501/     
  9. Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada MLDC, et alUltra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open 2016;6:e009892. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/3/e009892.citation-tools
  10. McCarthy, C. (2018, July 24). Common food additives and chemicals harmful to children. Harvard Health. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/common-food-additives-and-chemicals-harmful-to-children-2018072414326 
  11. Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac J-C, Jaime P, Martins AP, Canella D, Louzada ML, Parra D; with Ricardo C, Calixto G, Machado P, Martins C, Martinez E, Baraldi L, Garzillo J, Sattamini I. NOVA. The star shines bright. [Food classification. Public health]. World Nutrition January-March 2016, 7, 1-3, 28-38. http://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/WN-2016-7-1-3-28-38-Monteiro-Cannon-Levy-et-al-NOVA.pdf 
  12. Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Moubarac JC, Levy RB, Louzada ML, Jaime PC. The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with ultra-processing. 2018 Jan;21(1):5-17. From, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/un-decade-of-nutrition-the-nova-food-classification-and-the-trouble-with-ultraprocessing/2A9776922A28F8F757BDA32C3266AC2A 
  13. Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(2):283–291. From, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2757497

About the Author

Julia Zakrzewski Headshot
Julia Zakrzewski is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a background in primary care, clinical nutrition, and nutrition education. She has been practicing dietetics for four years.
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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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