29.05.2024

Which foods are ultra-processed and are they bad for you?

Food can be divided into four categories, from unprocessed to ultra-processed. Despite being an unfamiliar term, much of what we eat will fall into the last bracket.

This refers to how much processing food has gone through in its production, tending to indicate that something will contain additives which are not used in home cooking.

Ultra-processed foods include things you might assume are unhealthy such as crisps and biscuits, but also includes some cereals, bread, and yoghurts.

So what does the term really mean, and are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

Ultra-processed foods include things you might assume are unhealthy such as cake and biscuits, but also includes some cereals, bread, and yoghurts

Ultra-processed foods include things you might assume are unhealthy such as cake and biscuits, but also includes some cereals, bread, and yoghurts

Crisps are another thing we eat a lot of which is classed as ultra-processed

Crisps are another thing we eat a lot of which is classed as ultra-processed

Fruit and vegetables are at the other end of the food spectrum, as they have been barely altered from their natural state

Fruit and vegetables are at the other end of the food spectrum, as they have been barely altered from their natural state

What are the four food categories?

The Nova food classification divides foods into four categories based on how much they have been processed in production.

One: Unprocessed and minimally processed

Group one includes foods such as fruit and vegetables, milk, fish, and eggs, which we buy without any ingredients having been added to them, so are very similar to their natural state.

Two: Oils, fats, salt, and sugar

This is also called processed culinary ingredients, and refers to products which have been extracted from natural foods or processes.

This group includes oils made from seeds, butter, and honey.

Three: Processed foods

These are foods which are manufactured by combining members of groups one and two, so includes fresh bread, pickled vegetables, and cured meat.

Four: Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods

Some common examples of ultra-processed foods are:

  • Ice cream
  • Crisps
  • Biscuits
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Flavoured yoghurts
  • Sausages
  • Mass-produced bread
  • Ham
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Instant soups

These often have five or more constituent ingredients, including additives not used in home cooking.

These additives might include preservatives, emulsifiers, and sweeteners.

How can I know that my food is ultra-processed?

Long lists of ingredients will most often be a sure-fire way of knowing that the food you are buying is ultra-processed.

If you have a more detailed look at these ingredients and see things which you do not recognise, or words you could not pronounce, that is also a good indication.

A long shelf life might also be a sign of ultra-processed food, since this could be down to it containing preservatives.

Finally, check the coloured indicators for sugar, salt, and fat content — ultra-processed foods will often score highly on these.

Are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

Ultra-processed food often contain high quantities of  salt, sugar, and saturated fat, leaving less room for more beneficial ingredients.

There is also a consistent and growing body of research linking higher consumption of ultra-processed foods to negative health outcomes such as cancer.

However, these studies show only a correlation, not a direct causation, with one suggestion that a diet including more ultra-processed foods is just indicative of a more unhealthy lifestyle overall.

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 five 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: Five portions of fruit and vegetables, two whole-wheat cereal biscuits, two 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 two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)

• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts

• Drink six to eight 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

What do experts say?

Experts have insisted that there are such things as healthy ultra-processed foods, or at least not unhealthy ones.

Professor Gunter Kuhnle, an expert in nutrition at the University of Reading, criticised the label for being too vague.

He told MailOnline: ‘The problem – especially now with the cost of living crisis – is that people avoid perfectly fine, affordable food because they believe it to be «unhealthy».

‘We have been seeing the same problem with frozen vegetables – even though they are not ultra-processed, they are for some reason seen as «less healthy».’

However, TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has dedicated a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods, or as some call them, ‘industrially produced edible substances’.

TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has dedicated a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods

TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has dedicated a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods

He said: ‘These substances can’t even really be called «food». Increasingly, the calories we consume come from modified starches, from invert sugars, hydrolysed protein isolates and seed oils that have been refined, bleached, deodorised and hydrogenated.

‘What this means is that everything from chicken nuggets to ice cream can be made from the same base liquids and powders.’

The British Heart Foundation advises focusing on the balance in your diet, rather than cutting out ultra-processed foods entirely.

It highlights that not all ultra-processed foods are equal, with bread largely incomparable to crisps and sweets, despite all falling into the ultra-processed category.

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