These 7 Breakfast Staples Are Ultra-Processed. How Should You Decide Which Ones to Avoid?

ultra-processed breakfast

Photo Illustration by Joules Garcia for Verywell Health; Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Consuming high amounts of ultra-processed foods is associated with a 4% increased risk of early death from all causes, according to a 30-year study.
  • Ultra-processed foods typically contain additives, added sugar, and saturated fats.
  • Small dietary changes, like choosing plain oatmeal over flavored instant oatmeal, can help reduce intake of ultra-processed foods while maintaining a nutritious breakfast.

A new 30-year study linked ultra-processed foods, including certain breakfast staples, with a higher risk of early death. Frozen waffles, yogurt, and cereal fall into this category, so should you cut them from your breakfast routine?

The study found that participants who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 4% greater chance of early death from all causes and a 9% greater chance of early death from causes other than cancer or heart diseases. Previous studies have linked ultra-processed foods with cancer, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, inflammation, and gut microbiome changes.

There’s no “unified definition” of ultra-processed foods, but these typically contain additive ingredients—such as dyes, emulsifiers, and non-nutritive sweeteners—along with high amounts of added sugar and saturated fats, according to Maya Vadiveloo, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Rhode Island.

“I really think we need to be doing more to reduce the overabundance and the exceptionally low price point of unhealthy ultra-processed foods,” Vadiveloo told Verywell.

Ultra-processed foods make up an estimated 71% of the American food supply, so it’s difficult to avoid these products. Instead, you can focus on making “small shifts” toward eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds in forms that are “palatable, acceptable, and affordable,” Vadiveloo said.

Not all ultra-processed breakfast foods are created equal. While some items should be limited, foods like yogurt and oatmeal are extremely nutritious if you choose the right kind.

7 Ultra-Processed Breakfast Foods


Bacon, ham, sausage and other processed meats generally fall in the unhealthy ultra-processed foods category.

Nitrates and nitrites are added to processed breakfast meats for flavor and color as well as to decrease bacterial growth. These additives, combined with heme iron in processed red meat, are thought to increase the negative health risks associated with this breakfast food.

Multiple studies have associated processed meats with an increased risk of colorectal cancer and all-cause mortality. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend consuming “very little, if any, processed meat,” and the American Cancer Society recommends that people who eat processed meat products “do so sparingly.” The American Heart Association says to “avoid processed meats.”


Yogurt is a good source of calcium and protein, and a 2023 study found that ultra-processed yogurts belong in a subcategory of healthier ultra-processed foods.

“Whole grain bread, whole grain breakfast cereal, and yogurt are the groups that we found were associated with lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even though they are ultra-processed foods,” said Qi Sun, MD, ScD, an author of the study and an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Some yogurts with added sweeteners count as ultra-processed, but you don’t need to remove yogurt from your diet. Low-fat yogurts with less added sugar can serve as a swap for less-nutritious ultra-processed breakfast options, like Go-GURT or Pop-Tarts, according to Vadiveloo.


Oatmeal belongs in the ultra-processed category when it contains added flavors or colors. Plain, steel-cut oats, however, are considered minimally processed. Whole grain oats are associated with health benefits for the heart and digestive system.

If you like sweetness in your oatmeal, you can add your own sweetener to plain oatmeal as an alternative to instant oatmeal with added flavors and sweeteners, Vadiveloo said.

“We do see that people tend to add less sweetener than if it’s already pre-prepared,” she added.


Some commercially available whole grain breads—such as those made with whole wheat and whole rye—count as ultra-processed, but many nutrition experts consider these as healthier options compared to refined grains.

Whole grain bread is linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The new study on ultra-processed foods actually excluded whole grains because these have a strong association with reducing all-cause mortality.

Whole grains contain fiber, which promotes heart health and proper bowel function. They’re also rich in magnesium and selenium, which support the immune system. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half of the grains consumed in a diet should be whole grains.

Breakfast Cereals

Breakfast cereals with added sugars, dyes, and additives fall in the ultra-processed food category, which means Honey Nut Cheerios and Froot Loops can fit into this classification.

Consider the sugar content when deciding which cereals to add to your breakfast. Look for breakfast cereals with no more than 6 grams of sugar per dry ounce, according to Heather Anita Garcia Cerda, MS, RD, CPT, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles.

“Most other breakfast cereals and high sugar ultra-processed breakfast foods can be enjoyed like desserts. We don’t have to stop eating them, but it is important to have an awareness of the potential negative effects these foods can have when enjoyed frequently,” she told Verywell in an email.

Plant-based Milks

Adding a splash of oat milk to your coffee or blending almond milk in your smoothie means you’re adding some ultra-processed beverages to your breakfast.

Flavors, stabilizers, and chemical additives in plant-based beverages push push into the ultra-processed category, but people who are lactose intolerant, have certain food allergies, or follow a vegan diet often use plant-based beverages as a dairy milk alternative.

For a more nutritious plant-based beverage option, you can choose one without added sweetener, Garcia Cerda said.

Granola bars 

Store-bought granola bars are counted as ultra-processed, but you can look for options that are more nutritious.

Ultra-processed foods typically contain ingredients not used in home kitchens, so preparing granola bars at home would make them less processed. At the store, you can look for granola bars that contain nuts and have the least amount of added sugar, Garcia Cerda said.

“There is no shame in craving or enjoying these foods. If you find yourself craving ultra-processed foods more frequently, it may be a sign that you are not eating enough of the essential nutrition your body needs,” she said.

What This Means For You

It's almost impossible to eat a diet without any ultra-processed foods. However, you can try to focus on foods with less added sugar, sodium, and preservatives.

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Stephanie Brown

By Stephanie Brown
Brown is a nutrition writer who received her Didactic Program in Dietetics certification from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Previously, she worked as a nutrition educator and culinary instructor in New York City.