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An assortment of ultra-processed foods including donuts/pasties, candy, and fried foods such as potato chip, onion rings, fries, and breaded chicken.

An assortment of ultra-processed foods. While hyper-palatable and often irresistable, these foods do demonstable metabolic harm at a scale difficult to comprehend. A 2018 study on fried foods drew an alarming comparison of eating 154g of potato chips as being comparable in aldehyde content to smoking 25 nicotine cigarettes. 

Credit: Yuliya Furman / 500px / Getty Images

Ultra-Processed Foods

Call to action:

Eliminate ultra-processed foods from our diets and pressure their manufacturers to stop making and marketing these unhealthy products.

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are addictive food-like products designed by chemists to provide flavor-induced gratification without nourishment to the detriment of the health of people and the planet. UPFs take advantage of our evolutionary desire for fats, salts, and carbohydrates. Modern food formulation makes it possible to keep taste intensity without the associated nutrients, which led to UPF food design and manufacture. UPFs make up 60 percent of all calories consumed in the United States and the UK. They pose a major threat to public health, are a principal reason more than two billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, and are a key driver of chronic metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. UPFs are a by-product of industrial agriculture, and a significant source of greenhouse gases. Plastic packaging and other waste contribute to their large environmental footprint. It’s not just “junk food”—indeed, what qualifies as a UPF may surprise you. We must end the production and consumption of UPFs and embrace food that is real and regenerative. Changes are needed along the entire supply chain, from seed to farm to table to compost.

Action Items


Learn how ultra-processed foods harm people and the planet. UPFs are created by a complex process by which oils, carbohydrates, and proteins are broken into isolated substances, modified, and reassembled into something that did not exist previously. Chemicals are often added in the process, including emulsifiers and the sweetener aspartame. Even when the compounds aren’t highly artificial, common ingredients, such as sugar, can reward the same pleasure centers in our brains as cocaine and heroin. The final products are ready-to-heat, ready-to-eat foods intentionally designed to be tasty, convenient, and addictive. Because they exploit our evolutionary drivers for food while lacking nutrition, they do not provide satiety, which results in overeating. UPFs are linked to heart disease, diabetes, excess body weight, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, cognitive decline, depression, mental health problems in children, adolescents, and adults, increased risk of cancer, and higher mortality rates. Other issues with UPFs include:

  • Toxicity. UPFs use industrial seed oils, which are cytotoxic, genotoxic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, thrombogenic, atherogenic, and obesogenic. They also increase your appetite by stimulating endogenous cannabinoids anandamide and 2AG.
  • Unequal access to food. People living in poverty face steep barriers to accessing fresh, healthy food. This puts marginalized communities at greater risk of developing health problems related to UPF consumption.
  • Industrial agriculture. UPFs are typically manufactured using ingredients extracted from a few high-yielding plant species, including corn, wheat, soy, and rice, grown by industrial agriculture. Animal-sourced ingredients used in many ultra-processed foods are often derived from confined animals fed on the same crops, which can also make the animals sick. This is why cattle are only “grain-finished” at the end of their lives.
  • Biodiversity loss. The taste and texture requirements of UPFs compel uniformity in seeds, plants, and animals, including monoculture crops such as wheat, corn, rice, and sugarcane. This is how UPFs create and perpetuate a market that destroys biodiversity.
  • Ecosystem damage. Palm oil, which is used in a wide variety of ultra-processed foods, is a tropical crop grown on large plantations that have been linked to major environmental damage (see Palm Oil Nexus). This article details the overlooked environmental impacts of UPFs globally.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions. The raw materials for UPFs are produced by industrial agriculture, a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. This 2021 study shows how emissions from UPF production in Brazil increased by 245 percent between 1988 and 2018.
  • Packaging and chemical pollution. The world’s most prolific plastic polluters are major UPF producers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Learn more in Plastics Nexus.

Eliminate UPFs from your diet. Take steps to remove UPFs from your diet. Learn more about ways to transform what you eat and how it’s produced in the Plant Diversity Nexus and Regenerative Agriculture Nexus. If you live somewhere without access to fresh, healthy food, learn how to increase access in the Food Apartheid Nexus.

  • Recognize UPFs and avoid them. This article will help you distinguish between processed and ultra-processed food, a difference with major implications for your health. Recently, highly processed foods have expanded to include plant-based “fake meat” products, which utilize industrialized ingredients, as this article describes.
  • Retrain your brain. Try a rewiring challenge or some simple tricks such as meal planning, shopping the perimeter of grocery stores, and staying hydrated to avoid UPFs. Parents play an influential role in helping children develop healthy habits early on, especially in places like the U.S., where 67 percent of kids’ diets are UPFs.
  • Cook and eat whole, organic foods. Eating organic is a great way to avoid highly processed food. Studies on families show that having meals together helps kids eat less processed food. Our social influence on each other's eating habits is a powerful leverage point. Join a community kitchen, which brings groups of people together to prepare meals.
  • Fight food deserts. Understand the causes behind food deserts, where limited access to affordable, healthy food is driven by systemic racism and leads to increased rates of chronic disease in Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color (see Food Apartheid Nexus).
  • Support local food businesses, farmers’ markets, and co-ops. Switch from mass-produced, homogenous fast-food chains to local vendors cooking with fewer processed ingredients. Co-ops, food carts, and home-based businesses all play a vital role in providing affordable alternatives to UPFs. See Localization Nexus for more information.
  • Avoid fast-food chains. Fast food targets inner-city areas and often crowds out supermarkets offering fresh produce and healthier options. Here is a list of ten ways to stay away from fast-food chains that serve meals high in empty calories, industrially processed oils (which contain trans fats), refined carbohydrates, and table sugar (sucrose).

Take action to hold food corporations accountable. Elect leaders, vote for policies, and support initiatives that pressure international and governing agencies to set nutritional standards and force corporations to change.

  • Join a campaign or action network. Join campaigns focusing on the abuses of specific companies, such as this one on McDonald’s. Connect with an action network such as this one through the Humane League, which challenges factory farms committing abuses against workers and animals, or the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
  • Fight greenwashing. Controlling the narrative about UPFs is critical because much of corporate marketing is greenwashing. Here’s a way to spot it in the grocery store.
  • Make a donation to an organization that works to replace UPFs with fresh, healthy food. Food Tank is an advocate for healthy food, regenerative agriculture, and reform of our food system. The Center for Food Integrity helps consumers make informed choices about food (see Key Players below for more).
  • Find inspiration in success stories. The 2022 film El Susto documents the efforts of public health officials, medical professionals, and community members to tax soda in Mexico at a time when Coca-Cola was more accessible than water. In India, legislation that would favor corporations sparked protests by small farmers and allies, leading the government to repeal the controversial legislation in 2021.
  • Lead awareness campaigns about UPFs. Media campaigns help the public understand the impacts of and alternatives to UPFs. This study dives into the political practices of food corporations and strategic public health responses. It is important to implement a diverse range of skills in organization, cooperation, and planning, including community members as well as strategists who know how to leverage digital communications.


Educational Institutions

Reduce access to UPFs on school grounds. This study found that UPFs now comprise two-thirds of calories in children’s and teens’ diets in the U.S. Schools in the UK had similar numbers. This tracks with global trends. Schools can help young people develop healthy habits early on by offering fresh, healthy meals and eliminating UPFs from cafeterias, vending machines, and school property. Strong nutritional standards in school meal programs can also drive changes in the consumer markets and reshape the food system.

  • This guide breaks down ways to get more healthy options in school vending machines.
  • Real Food Generation is a student group organizing to end university support for food corporations on several fronts.
  • The Real Food Challenge trains and supports students to lead campus initiatives and has a calculator to help assess foods on offer.

Restaurants and Retailers

Purchase whole and organic foods for your restaurant, company, or store. Food retailers and their choices of what to serve or put on their shelves can have an enormous influence on consumers. Swap ultra-processed foods in favor of more plant-based, locally produced whole food options instead (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus and Localization Nexus for more information)

  • Connected Market is a tool for food companies and producers to network in support of a more biodiverse, transparent, and regenerative food chain.
  • Foodshed.io is a mobile marketing app and logistics platform connecting local producers to restaurants and markets.
  • The Good Food Purchasing Program supports public institutions with tools, technical support, and resources for buying foods aligned with five core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability.
  • Researchers in the UK are developing an algorithm that uses publicly available information to derive an estimate of the environmental impact of food products across multiple indicators.


Tax ultra-processed foods. Taxation of UPFs is being explored as a way to reduce UPF consumption and transform the food system. While taxing specific ingredients like sugar and salt has been explored as a possible solution, studies indicate that a UPF-specific tax would be more effective. Hungary and Mexico already have them.

  • Chile implemented a range of measures to minimize harm from junk food and soda companies, including mandating an 18 percent tax on soft drinks. They also implemented measures to protect children, from requiring the removal of cartoon characters on UPF labels to banning junk-food commercials from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Researchers report that children now warn their parents about what to avoid.
  • Hungary put a 4-cent tax on packaged foods and drinks that contain high levels of sugar and salt. Junk-food consumption decreased due to this tax and educational campaigns around it.
  • Mexico passed an 8 percent tax on foods, including snacks, sweets, nut butters, and cereal-based prepared products. An evaluation found that people bought 7 percent less junk food than they would have if the tax hadn’t been imposed.

Keep food companies out of public food policy and public health decision-making. Prohibit industry and trade groups from nominating to advisory committees. There is a history of corporate influence on the health departments that publish nutrition advice, often to the benefit of major food and beverage companies that wield considerable influence over the guideline-setting process.

  • In the U.S., more than 50 percent of government advisory committee members have ties to the International Life Sciences Institute, a shadow “pro-sugar” industry group described as “almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food, and pharmaceutical industries.”
  • This article discusses different public policy options to encourage better eating habits, including mandates, targeted restrictions, economic incentives, and marketing strategies.

Introduce evidence-based, official dietary guidelines. Dietary guidelines directly influence federal food assistance, school, and child-care feeding policies and programs. The first action item on this aspirational agenda for regulating the food industry is to update dietary guidelines to unambiguously state: “Avoid ultra-processed foods.” The nonprofit Nutrition Coalition, based in New York, is focused on dietary policy based on sound science. Here is its 2025–2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The NOVA classification system, established by Brazilian researchers, separates food into four categories according to the degree of processing involved. Category 4 is exclusively for ultra-processed food.

  • Guidelines can do a better job communicating the differences between types of food processing, including distinguishing beneficial forms of processing, such as fermentation, from highly industrialized methods.
  • A more in-depth exploration of ways to improve dietary guidelines can be found in this Brazilian study, including the promotion of healthy eating patterns, the protection of food cultures, and the promotion of a “golden rule”: always prefer fresh or minimally processed food and cooking preparation over more highly processed food.

Learn from successful legislative measures to regulate ultra-processed foods. Chile took action after becoming the world’s second most obese nation after the U.S.; it forced junk-food brands to label packages with health warnings, regulated advertising and imposed a high tax on junk foods. Mexico and Hungary are two other countries that imposed a junk-food tax with positive results in curbing consumption. China revised its “Food Pagoda” dietary guidelines in 2016 in an effort to limit growth in meat and processed food consumption.



King Corn (documentary)

Fed Up (documentary)

Food, Inc. (documentary)

Sugar Coated (documentary)

Rotten, Netflix (documentary, 48–63 mins. per episode)

That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau (documentary, 101 min.)

Super Size Me (documentary, 98 min.)

Gary Taubes, “The Case Against Sugar” (Low Carb Down Under YouTube Channel)


Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel

Hooked by Michael Moss

Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner

Grain by Grain by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle

A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje

How to Feed the World, edited by Jessica Eise and Ken Foster

Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine by Dr. Robert Lustig

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes

The Perils of Highly Processed Food by Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker)

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