Try tastier options over ultra-processed foods, it's easy

  • Courtesy of Don Mauer

    Courtesy of Don Mauer

Updated 7/10/2019 10:26 AM

New buzz words you might be familiar with right now: ultra-processed foods.

If you wonder what ultra-processed foods means, here's a definition from the National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Ultra-processed foods are defined as industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (e.g. oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (e.g. hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (e.g. flavor enhancers, colors, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable)".


That's as clear as beef gravy.

My guess: you're going to see a lot about ultra-processed foods during this year and possibly beyond.

What's processed food? Bread is a good example, and so are canned beans and spaghetti sauce.

An ultra-processed food has, in its production, been processed from its original state even further. The simplest way to understand this is to know that all the ingredients in an ultra-processed food are either extracted from other foods or added to with nonfood components, like artificial color, or chemical stabilizers.

Here's a classic example of ultra-processed foods: Pringles Snack Chips. Many see Pringles as a potato chip, yet even though the ingredient list begins with dried potatoes, the next ingredients come from other sources: vegetable oils, cornstarch, corn flour, and rice flour. All of that plus a few other ingredients are turned into a semiliquid mixture and processed, formed and baked from there.

Soft drinks, like Kool-Aid Drink Mix, comes to mind. Kool-Aid ingredients: sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), artificial flavor, calcium phosphate, red 40, blue 1. A classic ultra-processed product.

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I took a long look at the ingredients in a chicken-flavored ramen noodles product. The next to the last element listed on its packaging is powdered cooked chicken. One ramen noodle product contains the not-so-easy-to pronounce disodium guanylate. One had cabbage extract. Cabbage extract? Hey. Where's the cabbage?

What appears to be the underlying nutritional issues with ultra-processed foods isn't just about "empty" calories. This proliferation of ultra-processed foods is serious on two levels. The first is, according to a surprising Canadian study that found that nearly half the calories consumed by Canadians came from ultra-processed foods.

The second issue is the reduced nutritional content of ultra-processed foods. That same study showed that ultra-processed foods are low in protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D, B6 and B12, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.

Yes, ultra-processed foods provide convenience, sure. But a salad with fresh organic vegetables and a bottled organic dressing doesn't take that long to make. Fresh fruit and cheese made from grass-fed cows can be both convenient and healthy. What about protein? Some markets have rotisserie organic chicken that's real chicken; only processing is roasting.


My Summertime Pasta Salad is packed with "real" ingredients. Yes, macaroni could be considered ultra-processed, so use whole wheat pasta. Yes, it takes some time to make, but the palate and health reward at the end is well worth it. Give it a try.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write to him at don@

Summertime Pasta Salad

½ pound (2½ cups) organic macaroni

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons whole-grain Dijon mustard

1 garlic clove, minced

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1 (15 ounce) can organic chickpeas, drained

3 organic celery ribs, thinly sliced

½ cup organic Italian parsley, chopped

½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, quartered lengthwise

1½ cups finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (I used a kitchen rasp)

Cook the macaroni in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold running water.

While the macaroni cooks: In a large bowl, whisk the lemon juice and vinegar with the mustard, garlic, salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow steady stream until combined and emulsified. Set aside.

Add the cooked and drained macaroni to the dressing and toss to coat. Add the chickpeas, celery, parsley, olives and cheese and toss to combine.

Serves 8

Nutrition values per serving: 391 calories (52.2 percent from fat), 22.7 g fat (5.2 g saturated fat), 32.8 g carbohydrates, 3.1 g sugars, 3.9 g fiber, 13.8 g protein, 17 mg cholesterol, 593 mg sodium.

Trim the fat: Cut 54 fat grams and nearly 500 calories by reducing the olive oil to 1/4-cup and replacing it with a 1/4-cup of the chickpea juice.

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