Ultra-processed foods have been demonised for decades, with gloomy warnings that they make us fat and raise our risk of cancer. But top nutrition experts today claimed some are being wrongly villainized.
Baked beans, fish fingers and wholemeal bread can all form part of a healthy diet, according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).
Tomato-based pasta sauces, wholegrain cereals and fruit yoghurts were also given the all-clear and labelled ‘healthier processed foods’.
The BNF charity admits they are a source of ‘important nutrients’, as well as being ‘convenient and affordable’.
Baked beans, fish fingers and wholemeal bread can be ‘part of a healthy diet’ and are a source of ‘some important nutrients’ according to the British Nutrition Foundation
Food experts have set out which options can be ‘part of a healthy diet’. Baked beans, fish fingers and wholemeal bread all make the cut, according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). Tomato-based pasta sauces, wholegrain breakfast cereals and fruit yoghurts are also ‘healthier processed foods’, the charity said
Anything edible made with colourings, sweeteners and preservatives automatically falls into the ultra-processed category under the Nova food classification system.
It was created by a Brazilian scientist in 2009 as a way to group foods in relation to the processes they undergo.
It has since been used by hundreds of scientists to examine the link between eating habits and disease.
Dozens of studies have warned of the risk of eating too much ultra-processed foods, which include biscuits, cakes, crisps, ready meals, sausages, chips and soft drinks.
But some experts have warned that the label is vague and paints ‘perfectly fine’ food as ‘unhealthy’.
Some nations, such as France, Belgium and Brazil, have used ultra-processed foods in official guidance, advising that people eat less.
But the UK and US have so far avoided this, instead focusing guidance on calories, salt and sugar and providing advice to consume fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.
Now, the BNF has published a position statement, urging the Government against including ultra-processed foods in national dietary guidelines.
It warned that there is a ‘lack of agreed definition’ around what foods fall into the category and concerns about its ‘usefulness as a tool to identify healthier products’.
For example, foods such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals and baked beans are also usually classified as ultra-processed but ‘these can be a convenient and affordable source of some important nutrients’, the BNF said.
Bridget Benelam, a BNF spokesperson said: ‘For many of us when we get home after a busy day, foods like baked beans, wholemeal toast, fish fingers or ready-made pasta sauces are an affordable way to get a balanced meal on the table quickly.
‘These may be classed as ultra-processed but can still be part of a healthy diet.’
She added: ‘It’s great if you can cook from scratch when you have time, but I know for me, as a working parent it’s often not an option.
‘We need to make healthy eating easier and more affordable, not more difficult and expensive.
Nutritionists split food into three groups based on the amount of processing they have gone through. Minimally processed foods, like apples, are usually exactly how they appear in nature. Processed foods, like apple sauce, have gone through at least one level of processing that has changed their original form. In contrast, ultra-processed foods like apple jelly babies, have gone through multiple levels of processing and are usually full of extra fats, colours and preservatives
‘Choosing healthier processed foods is one way that can help people fit healthy eating into their lives’.
The BNF also released the results of a survey, which quizzed more than 2,000 Brits on ultra-processed foods.
It showed that nearly half of people (46 per cent) had heard of the category and a third were trying to reduce these foods from their diet.
Ready meals, vegetarian meat alternatives, shop-bought burgers, cereal with added sugar and shop-bought sausages were the foods most widely-recognised as ultra-processed, results revealed.
However, fewer people classified baked beans (nine per cent), low-fat fruit yogurts (10 per cent), ice cream (14 per cent and sliced bread (19 per cent) as ultra-processed.
The survey also found that most people agreed that it was better to cook from scratch than to use processed foods (68 per cent).
But nearly half agreed that a healthy balanced diet can include some processed foods and that processed foods can be convenient to save time preparing food.
It comes after TV doctor Chris van Tulleken shared the results of a month-long experiment, in which 80 per cent of his diet was made up of ultra-processed foods.
He shared that he gained 13lbs (6kg) and was left aching, tired, angry and like he had aged ten years.
MRI scans revealed his brain had started to develop new pathways, usually linked with addictive drug use, rather than food.
Dr van Tulleken said: ‘Until recently, most scientists believed it was impossible for food to be addictive.
‘Yet I know from my experience that I felt very strongly “addicted” to certain types of ultra-processed food (chiefly takeaways).’
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day