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10 Ultra-Processed Foods That Are Dietitian Approved

Written By: Catrina Cowart

Catrina Cowart is a writer and editor with over 14 years of professional experience working with newsletters, white papers, technical documents, product descriptions, press releases, blogs and articles, email campaigns, landing pages, and SEO ranking. As a long-time freelance and agency writer, she focuses on writing in niches including health and wellness, medical, legal, travel, the arts, and science and technology.

Expert Reviewed By: Emily Sullivan, RD

Emily Sullivan, RD is a food data curator at MyFitnessPal. She earned her bachelor's degree and completed her dietetic internship at The Ohio State University, and obtained her culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales University. Her experience extends from nutrition research, oncology nutrition, culinary nutrition education and recipe development.

Ultra-Processed Foods That Are Dietitian Approve | MyFitnessPal
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You’ve probably come across articles and social media posts saying that ultra-processed foods are bad for your health. And sure, there may be some truth to this. But the nutritional value of all ultra-processed foods found isn’t always black or white. That is, not all ultra-processed foods are created equal.

So, you might think you need to toss out all your deli meats or salad dressings to skip overly processed foods, but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, some ultra-processed foods can still play a positive role in your diet.

We spoke to several dietitians to get their advice on ultra-processed foods and when to add or cut them out of your diet. Here’s what you should know.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)?

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are typically packaged foods that have been created with manufactured ingredients—aka, things you wouldn’t normally find in a kitchen.

By definition, they are “formulations of ingredients and food substances, some of which are not used in culinary preparations, to imitate the qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed items. They can also include ingredients that disguise any undesirable final product.”

Translated to English, they’re typically packaged foods that have been created with manufactured ingredients—aka, things you wouldn’t normally find in a kitchen.

Does that mean you have to cut these foods out of your meal meal planning? You may be surprised by the answer.

The healthy role UPF foods can play in your diet

A lot of people think that super-processed foods are basically junk and should be avoided whenever possible. But according to Emily Sullivan, a dietitian who works with MyFitnessPal, that’s not always true.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about ultra-processed foods is that they all provide little to no nutritional value,” she says. “In reality, this food classification doesn’t reference the actual nutritional contents of the food, only the degree to which it was processed.”

Simply put: there are exceptions. In fact, in a study back in 2023, the USDA found that a predesigned menu where almost all the calories came from super-processed foods still provided most of the nutrients you need to stay healthy, except for a few like Choline, vitamin D, and vitamin E.

Top 10 UPF foods our dietitians use

Ultra-processed foods can be all over the map when it comes to how nutritious they are for you. That’s probably why the research shows that eating a diet rich in ultra-processed foods often leads to negative health outcomes.

But, by keeping an eye on sugar, fat, salt, and calories, you can still fit them into your diet in moderation. Eating ultra-processed foods with higher nutritional values will be the key to success and improved diet quality.

Here’s a list of ultra-processed foods that MyFitnessPal’s dietitians give a thumbs up to.

1. Soy milk and unsweetened almond milk

Soy milk and unsweetened almond milk are considered ultra-processed foods, but they’re both great choices for your diet. Fortified soy milk is a good source of Vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, and protein (with 7g to 9g per serving). Soy milk also lacks saturated fat, which is found in cow’s milk.

Unsweetened almond milk is a good alternative for those who don’t want to drink soy or cow’s milk. It is also a UPF but doesn’t have high amounts of added sugar or sodium.

2. Whole grain crackers

Whole grain crackers may fall into the processed or ultra-processed food categories. Yet they are an excellent source of whole grains and a convenient way to get some top nutrients, including fiber, vitamin E, and B vitamins. For an added benefit, you can combine these crackers with less processed foods and bulk up on other necessary nutrients.

3. Protein powders and bars

Protein powders often fall into the processed, and sometimes ultra-processed, categories. But they can be a great solution for those who struggle to get enough protein in their diets!

Alternatively, protein bars are more likely to be ultra-processed foods but are still a good way to increase protein intake, especially for busy individuals.

4. Salad dressing

Salad dressing helps add flavor to what might otherwise be a bland salad, but like many other condiments, dressings are often ultra-processed. When you purchase salad dressing, be sure to read the label and try to identify the best-quality dressing available. Look for salad dressings low in added sugar and saturated fat.

5. Rice cakes

Rice cakes are beneficial because they have few carbohydrates, and they work well as bases for peanut butter and chocolate chips, nut butter, berries, or other add-ons. Don’t forget to check the food labels before buying these UPFs, since some rice cakes have additives or are loaded up with added sugar– something that Americans tend to over-consume.

6. Breakfast cereals

Breakfast cereals come in a wide range of flavors, colors, and textures. Some are super sweet, and there are many you may want to find alternatives on a quest to eat a more nutritious diet.

But you should know that even whole grain, lightly sweetened breakfast cereals are ultra-processed foods. While keeping that in mind, look for cereals that contain fewer than 10g of added sugar per serving.

A good option? Kashi Go Peanut Butter Crunch cereal. It has 8g of fiber, 10g of protein, and 9g of added sugars per serving, making it a good choice for your first meal of the day.

Processed foods dietitian's recommend (INFOGRAPHIC)

7. Whole-grain bread

Eating whole-grain bread is another good way to add whole grains to your diet. When commercially produced, this type of bread is ultra-processed. However, getting over half your grains from whole-grain sources is still recommended.

Whole-grain foods are full of vitamins and nutrients, and they are rich in fiber. Fiber can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and may help you reduce the risk of developing heart disease, too. Check the nutrition label to ensure the bread you’re eating is whole grain. The first ingredient should be “whole grain.”

8. Lightly sweetened Greek yogurt

Out of this entire list of ultra-processed foods, Greek yogurt is one of the few with gut-friendly probiotics. It’s known that eating these probiotics can have a positive effect on diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular conditions.

When shopping for yogurt, look for one with no more than 5g of added sugar.

9. Soy-based meat alternatives

There are several types of soy-based meat alternatives, including Morningstar veggie burgers and chik’n nuggets. These are both classified as ultra-processed foods but can be a good choice as a plant-based protein alternative.

Soy-based meat products don’t have as much saturated fat as real meat, making them an excellent solution for those looking for high-protein meat alternatives at lunch or dinner.

10. Jarred tomato-based pasta sauces

Tomato-based pasta sauces in jars often fall into the ultra-processed category, but they’re not necessarily an unhealthy option. Check the ingredients when you choose your next tomato or spaghetti sauce, as some will have less added sugar or salt.

If you want to add additional vegetables to your diet, consider choosing a tomato-based pasta sauce with carrots or onions in the mix. Put this sauce over whole-grain pasta to make an easy meal with nutritional benefits.

Integrate UPFs the Right Way for a Well-Balanced Diet

When you look at all the ultra-processed foods around you, it can be hard to imagine how you will avoid those that could be harmful while still retaining the healthier UPFs in your diet.

Fortunately, if you eat the items on this list in combination with unprocessed foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, you’ll build a well-rounded diet that contains the nutrients your body needs to be at its best.

Use MyFitnessPal to keep track of the calories in the foods you’re eating. Track all added sugars and fats, and keep an eye on your sodium intake. If you’re consuming more than the recommended amount, place a focus back on the UPFs you’re eating and see if you can cut back or swap them out for more nutrient-dense UPFs.

About the Authors

Meet the people behind the post

Written By: Catrina Cowart

Catrina Cowart is a writer and editor with over 14 years of professional experience working with newsletters, white papers, technical documents, product descriptions, press releases, blogs and articles, email campaigns, landing pages, and SEO ranking. As a long-time freelance and agency writer, she focuses on writing in niches including health and wellness, medical, legal, travel, the arts, and science and technology.

Expert Reviewed By: Emily Sullivan, RD

Emily Sullivan, RD is a food data curator at MyFitnessPal. She earned her bachelor's degree and completed her dietetic internship at The Ohio State University, and obtained her culinary arts degree from Johnson and Wales University. Her experience extends from nutrition research, oncology nutrition, culinary nutrition education and recipe development.

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