Ultra-processed foods are typically comprised of ingredients extracted from other foods. Discover soy's role in ultra-processed foods and a balanced diet.

Maintaining a balanced diet is key to our overall health. However, the language of nutrition can sometimes complicate our understanding of what a balanced diet is.

Take the term “ultra-processed foods,” for example. What does it mean to process food? How is food ultra-processed? Should ultra-processed food be avoided? And, finally, how does soy fit into the equation? We answer these questions and more below.

What are ultra-processed foods?

The next time you stroll through your local supermarket, try to count the number of processed food items for sale. Hint: you’ll need more than ten fingers. You see, whether food is frozen, pasteurized, canned, fermented, cooked or prepared or preserved in some other way, most food is processed.

Ultra-processed foods are typically comprised of ingredients extracted from other foods, including elements like added vitamins or fats. You likely consume ultra-processed foods regularly. Think shelf stable foods like nutrition bars, meat alternatives, sweetened breakfast cereals and baked goods. As that wide range of foods implies, ultra-processed foods vary greatly in nutritional value. Some of them may be high in protein (such as a protein bar) or full of heart-healthy fats (such as almond butter).

Should I eat ultra-processed foods?

Both processed foods and ultra-processed foods are often accessible, convenient, and cost-effective options. However, like any food category, ultra-processed foods do not provide the full spectrum of nutrients recommended as part of a healthy diet.

There can be room for ultra-processed foods in a balanced diet that also includes nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and more.

Where does soy fit into all of this?

Soy products are present in a wide array of food options. Soy spans minimally processed foods, like edamame, to concentrated protein sources found in ultra-processed foods. Soy-based meat and dairy alternatives, despite classification as ultra-processed foods, deliver high-quality nutrition on par with unprocessed or minimally processed animal-based counterparts. Soy’s versatility and status as a high-quality protein and a heart-healthy ingredient make it a top choice for food companies of all kinds.

More specifically, there are two types of soy products: soy protein and soybean oil, which is more commonly known as vegetable oil. Both types of soy products have a neutral flavor and the potential to enhance many food items.

You probably eat soy products more often than you think. Food companies increasingly rely on soy products to serve as agents of hydration, emulsification, gelatin and more.

What health benefits do soy ingredients offer?

Soy protein is an environmentally friendly and heart-healthy alternative to animal-based products. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Soy is a complete source of protein. In fact, it is the only plant protein comparable to animal-based protein in terms of quality.

Soybean oil also has a reputation for promoting cardiovascular health. It is one of the best sources of omega-6 (linoleic acid) polyunsaturated fat, which can help lower your cholesterol. It may also reduce your risk of heart attack when eaten as a replacement for saturated fat.

Should I opt for ultra-processed foods with soy ingredients over alternatives?

One common concern regarding ultra-processed foods is that they may contribute to a high calorie diet, which is linked to obesity. It’s important to remember that the term ultra-processed refers to a broad category of foods, with a wide range of nutritional value.

People may choose to opt for ultra-processed foods with soy ingredients over alternatives due to dietary restrictions, such as vegetarianism or veganism. Plus, research shows that concerns about calories do not apply to soy-based products more than products made with animal-based ingredients.

Maintaining a balanced diet is easier when we take the time to educate ourselves on the food we eat. So next time you’re in the grocery store, be sure to read nutritional labels and keep an eye out for soy-based ingredients. From there, you can determine the role soy plays in the product and how it fits into your overall diet.