5 "Healthy" Snacks that Are Actually Ultra-Processed

There are a lot of diet products on the shelves these days. However, a lot of "healthy" snacks are actually ultra-processed products. Learn more in this article!
5 "Healthy" Snacks that Are Actually Ultra-Processed
Anna Vilarrasa

Written and verified by the nutritionist Anna Vilarrasa.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Fast food and packaged foods aren’t the only foods that are ultra-processed. Did you know that some of those “healthy” snacks you see aren’t actually that healthy? Today, we’ll share 5 “healthy” snacks that are actually ultra-processed.

It’s important to recognize these types of products so you can limit how much of them you eat. That’s because including too many ultra-processed foods in your diet can cause obesity and other non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular problems or diabetes.

Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are those that contain a long list of artificially flavored ingredients and additives. In addition, they tend to contain added sugars, stabilizers, and preservatives.

Automatically, when we think of those things, we think of fast food, packaged foods, and energy drinks. However, they’re actually found in a lot more products and they can even hide under the guise of healthy products. 

The desire to take care of yourself and to watch your diet is becoming increasingly more common in our society. And, because of that increase, the food industry has seen an opportunity to promote healthy products. They state that these products have healthy attributes and properties.

Most highlight the right nutrients that can help promote better physical and mental fitness. However, it’s important to pay attention to the foods’ composition. Remember, there are a lot of seemingly healthy snacks that are actually ultra-processed.

woman reading label

5 “healthy” foods that are actually ultra-processed

As you’ve already seen, these types of products are very common. Here’s a list of some of the products that you should only eat in moderation.

1. Granola or energy bars

These bars are perhaps one of the most common fitness foods and are often the choice of those looking for a light snack. That’s because they’re a convenient, fast, and light way to replenish your energy levels wherever you are. 

The problem with these bars isn’t their ingredients. In fact, some of them are healthy by themselves. The issue is that these bars hide large amounts of sugar in the form of honey, syrup, or glucose and fructose syrups.

Therefore, this snack provides instant energy, but it doesn’t last long. In addition, it won’t help you feel full for very long. 

2. Protein bars

Unlike granola bars, these supplementary bars have a high protein content. Therefore, people tend to eat them after they exercise or to increase their protein intake.

For the most part, they’re made with milk or egg proteins. However, some of them also contain a lot of sugar and saturated fat. Sometimes, they even contain more sugar than a chocolate bar. 

3. More “healthy” snacks that are actually ultra-processed: fiber-packed biscuits and cereals

Healthy biscuits and cereals are very popular. That’s because they contain a lot of fiber, but they also contain a lot of added sugar. 

In addition, when it comes to fiber biscuits, many of them contain hydrogenated fats or oils that aren’t good for you and that don’t have any benefits.

Therefore, you need to make sure you read the label well before buying these products. Some of the more classic options have the same or better nutritional composition than others that are advertised as healthy options.

4. High-protein pastries

Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of low-carb diets, these are some of the more recent products to hit the market. People will eat them if they want to improve their body composition or if they want to lose weight and avoid health problems. 

Within this group of ultra-processed foods, you can find donuts, cookies, bread, croissants, rolls, and all kinds of savory and sweet snacks.

So, what’s the problem? First, they contain a long list of added flavors and preservatives. Many of them aren’t even recognizable.

The second issue is their nutritional composition. Despite having more protein than the original versions of these products, they also have little to no nutritional value. People will end up eating more of them because they appear to be healthier, which could be harmful to their health. 

5. Protein shakes

For a long time, athletes were the only people drinking protein shakes. However, today they’re being aimed at people who want to take care of themselves and who don’t have time to cook a complete meal. 

They’re easy to make, convenient to bring along with you, and quick to consume. But, when it comes to their composition, they actually provide the same nutrients as energy and protein bars. 

Why is it important to avoid ultra-process foods?

For years, nutrition and health experts have warned about consuming too many ultra-processed foods. Why are they under the spotlight? What’s the reason for all this concern and why should I avoid them?

First, their nutritional quality is an issue. Or, we should say their lack of nutrients. They contain almost zero of the basic nutrients that we need to stay healthy and to promote our well-being. Some of these nutrients are complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Instead, these products contain high amounts of salt, added sugar, and saturated and hydrogenated fats. In addition, they tend to have a lot of calories. 

Also, the marketing associated with these products encourages consumers to eat a lot of them. As a result, people include too many of them in their diets.

Then, this continued use can lead to long-term health problems. Over the last decades, scientific evidence has demonstrated a link between these products and adverse outcomes.

For example, in a systemic review published in 2020, these were the associated problems:

  • Higher prevalence of being overweight and obese, as well as a higher body mass index.
  • Increased risk of metabolic syndrome and all its factors: high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high blood lipids.
  • Higher incidence of cardiovascular, arterial, and cerebrovascular disease.
  • Depression.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome problems.
  • Higher mortality.
granola bars

Can you still eat these “healthy” snacks that are ultra-processed?

Ultra-processed foods are known to have high amounts of added sugar, low-quality fats, and salt. Also, they do not contain a lot of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Today, many companies want you to think that their products are a great source of these nutrients and that they’ll promote your health and well-being. However, it’s always best to get these nutrients through fresh food. 

Keep in mind, that eating these foods in moderation isn’t harmful and may even be helpful for your body. Just remember to pay attention to the products you are buying and eating, and to ensure they’re not part of your everyday diet. 

For those who want to consume these products sporadically, our advice is to read the product labels and choose those with ingredients that you recognize. If circumstances lead to you needing to eat more of these foods, you should try exploring homemade alternatives that are quick to make and easy to bring along with you and eat. 

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Elizabeth L, Machado P, et al. Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. Junio 2020. 12(7):1955.
  • Fiolet Th, et al. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risk: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. The BMJ. Febrero2018. 360:k322.
  • Marti A. Ultra-Processed Foods Are Not “Real Food” but Really Affect Your Health. Nutrients. Agosto 2019.11(8):1902.
  • Rauber F, et al. Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases-Related Dietary Nutrient Profile in the UK (2008⁻2014). Nutrients. Mayo 2018. 10(5):587.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.