Debunking Myths about processed and Ultra-Processed Foods
In today’s fast-paced world, convenience and cost often guide our nutritional choices which has led to the steady rise in the amount of ultra-processed food we are eating. In fact, one study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed that more than half of the energy (i.e. calories) of a person in the UK comes from ultra-processed foods. In this article we will delve deeper into what is ultra-processed foods, whether there is a difference between processed and ultra-processed foods and how you can make some healthier choices.
What is ultra-processed food?
The terms ‘processed’ and ultra-processed’ foods are used a lot but what this actually mean? Processed food All food has to go through some processing unless you grow everything at home and eat it fresh! The reasons why foods are processed is so they last longer, their flavour is enhanced or it is safer for you to eat. For example, pasteurising, freezing, caning, drying, chopping or cooking is all a form of processing.
This terms comes from researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil who developed the definition ‘Ultra-processed food’ and the NOVA food classification
The NOVA food classification divides foods into 4 groups depending on how much they have been processed:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Foods included: fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds
These foods have no added ingredients and haven’t been changed much from their natural state (e.g. they have removed inedible or unwanted parts of the food)
2. Processed ingredients Foods included: salt, sugar, butter, lard, oils, vinegar
This includes food ingredients that are added to other foods and generally not eaten on their own.
3. Processed foods
Foods included: homemade jam, pickles, tinned fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses.
These are foods that are made by combining foods from groups 1 and 2, which are changed in a way that you could do at home yourself.
4. Ultra-processed foods Foods included: breakfast cereals, biscuits, fizzy drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, instant soups, ham, ice cream, sausages, mass-produced bread, hot dogs, some alcoholic drinks (gin, rum, whiskey) Ultra-processed foods usually have five or more ingredients. They tend to include additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, for example preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf life.
What are the health risks of ultra-processed foods? Weight gain
From the list above, you will see some of these foods will be high in fat, sugar and salt and low in fibre. We know that eating more higher in fat and sugar foods can lead to weight gain which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart problems and some cancers. Also, there is some research into how our bodies respond to food depending on how they are processed. For example studies have shown that when you eat whole nuts you absorb less fat compared to when the nuts are ground and their oils are released.
As some of these foods are also low in fibre they may negatively affect your gut health as fibre is needed to keep you gut bacteria healthy. Cancer
There is already strong evidence that processed meats are linked with bowel cancer. Processed meats include meats that are smoked, cured or had salt or chemical preservatives added (e.g. bacon, salami, chorizo, corned beef, pepperoni, pastrami, hot dogs and ham). So, these should be avoided. I have a whole blog on this which you can read here .
A recent study was published on people's intake of ultra-processed food and risk of cancer. This study found that a diet high in ultra-processed food was linked to an increase risk of cancer. However, like many studies in diet and health, this was an observational study and doesn’t show that an ultra-processed diet causes cancer. If you look deeper in research you also see that the people studied had a low intake of vegetables and other healthier foods such as pulses, nuts, seeds and fruit. So, it is very difficult to say whether ultra-processed foods were associated with increased cancer risk or that it was because their diet overall was unhealthy.
Does ultra-processed foods have any nutritional benefits?
The less obvious types of ultra-processed foods are foods like low sugar wholegrain breakfast cereals, shop bought sliced wholemeal bread, baked beans and even home-made bread could be classed as ultra-processed with it was made from fortified flour! These types of foods have other benefits as they may have added vitamins and minerals and a good source of fibre so can be actually eaten as part of a healthy diet. This is where ultra-processed foods become confusing as not all ultra-processed foods are unhealthy as we seen above.
What is the dietitian verdict?
It is a good idea to limit some of the obviously processed foods and drinks in your diet like sweets, cakes, biscuits, processed meats, and ready meals. Where you can include fruits and vegetables (tinned, fresh, frozen are all ok), limit red meat (see blog), include protein sources from fish, pulses nuts and seeds. Aim to try to prepare meals yourself too and remember this doesn’t have to be too complicated. Some ideas to try Reduce the biscuits, cakes and sweets- try whole nuts, fruit, seeds instead
Drop the readymade sauces- make your own and freeze so you can use another day (tomato, butternut squash sauces freezes very well)
Swap your flavoured yoghurt- chose plain yoghurt and add your own fruit
If you would like help planning your diet, my programmes all include a dietary analysis so you can see exactly if you are getting the right amount of nutrients and we can develop a plan together to create a healthy diet!