We eat a lot of ultra-processed food, and these foods tend to be sugary and not so great for us. But the problem isn’t necessarily the fact that they’re ultra-processed. This is a weird and arguably unfair way to categorize foods, so let’s take a look at what “ultra-processed” really means.

This terminology comes from a classification scheme called NOVA that splits foods into four groups:

Unprocessed or “minimally processed” foods (group 1) include fruits, vegetables, and meats. Perhaps you’ve pulled a carrot out of the ground and washed it, or killed a cow and sliced off a steak. Foods in this category can be processed in ways that don’t add extra ingredients. They can be cooked, ground, dried, or frozen.

Processed culinary ingredients (group 2) include sugar, salt, and oils. If you combine ingredients in this group, for example to make salted butter, they stay in this group.

Processed foods (group 3) are what you get when you combine groups 1 and 2. Bread, wine, and canned veggies are included. Additives are allowed if they “preserve [a food’s] original properties” like ascorbic acid added to canned fruit to keep it from browning.

Ultra-processed foods (group 4) don’t have a strict definition, but NOVA hints at some properties. They “typically” have five or more ingredients. They may be aggressively marketed and highly profitable. A food is automatically in group 4 if it includes “substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities of group 1 foods or of culinary preparations of these foods, or to disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product.”

That last group feels a little disingenous. I’ve definitely seen things in my kitchen that are supposedly only used to make “ultra-processed” foods: food coloring, flavor extracts, artificial sweeteners, anti-caking agents (cornstarch, anyone?) and tools for extrusion and molding, to name a few.
So when we talk about ultra-processed foods, we have to remember that it’s a vague category that only loosely communicates the nutrition of its foods. Just like BMI combines muscley athletes with obese people because it makes for convenient math, NOVA categories combine things of drastically different nutritional quality.

Source: What Is Ultra-Processed Food?