More than half the calories we consume in the UK are said to come from ultra-processed food (UPF). Unlike the dishes we make in our own kitchens, usually with fresh produce and storecupboard ingredients, these foods contain little or no whole foods. They are often industrially formulated, using synthetic sweeteners, colourings and other chemical preservatives and emulsifiers. They’re also more likely to contain high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar, and to be low in fibre.

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Eating UPFs regularly has been linked to poor health, cancer and even early death. But, given these foods are widespread in our diets (often because they’re timesaving and convenient) and cover a range of different items, are they all as bad as each other? Read more about how foods are categorised as ultra-processed, or continue below to discover which UPFs are likely to be most damaging to your health – and why.

Next, find out if processed food is bad for you too, 10 ways to eat less meat and why is sugar bad for us?

A range of ultra-processed foods

The 10 worst ultra-processed foods

1. Energy drinks

These legal stimulants combine sugars in the form of glucose and sucrose with ingredients like caffeine to boost metabolism and increase alertness. Although energy drinks are said to sharpen our focus and enhance performance, when consumed regularly they make the heart work harder and faster and may have serious health implications, especially when consumed by children and young people.

Read more about energy drinks.

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2. Mass-produced bread

This is the type that covers most supermarket shelves and is classed as a UPF. As well as the staple bread ingredients (flour, yeast, salt and water), it typically includes additives for the purpose of speeding up the manufacturing process and extending shelf life. Examples include emulsifiers, preservatives and sugars. Mass-produced bread is said to make up as much as 11 per cent of the calories we eat, so if this is relevant to you, buying the best you can afford, with minimal additives, may make a useful reduction to the amount of UPFs you consume.

Read more about buying a healthy loaf.

3. Breakfast cereals

Many popular cereals are classed as UPFs because they contain highly processed grains as well as additives, such as invert sugar syrup, preservatives and colourings. Processing grains like oats and corn reduces their fibre and nutrient content, and increases the impact they have on our blood sugar and insulin response, making them a less healthy option when compared to an equivalent bowl of minimally processed cereal, such as porridge. Although some are fortified with vitamins and minerals, these packaged cereals are low in protein and fibre and high in sugar. They’re also a frequent source of misleading health claims.

4. Hot dogs

The combination of a steamed or boiled sausage in a partially sliced white bun has achieved iconic status. Sausages were one of the first ‘processed’ foods with frankfurters, the type used in a hot dog, typically comprising pork that has been cured, and sometimes smoked.

Current health guidelines recommend we limit our red meat intake to no more than 70g (cooked weight) per day, due to a potential link with bowel cancer. Processed meat, like sausages, are thought to carry a greater risk, as they contain additional nitrates as well as high levels of saturated fat and salt. Long-term consumption of red meat, and particularly processed meat, is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality, heart disease and type 2 diabetes in both men and women.

Vegan sausages and burgers

5. Vegan ‘meat’

These highly engineered products are designed to mimic the texture, flavour and appearance of conventional meat. For example, a clever use of the carbohydrates known as ‘reducing sugars’ (such as dextrose, xylose or arabinose) and colourants can create the effect of a colour change from ‘raw’ red-pink to brown during cooking.

Other additives, like methylcellulose, are used to create a meat-like bite, while carrageenan improves the slice-ability when served cold. Flavour enhancers like monosodium glutamate as well as emulsifiers, stabilisers and fillers are also used to adjust the taste and texture of the plant protein. As these chemicals have varied effects on the body, they shouldn’t be consumed regularly.

6. Chicken nuggets

Although we might assume they’re made from lean breast meat, chicken nuggets are likely to include other parts of the bird, including tendons, skin, bone, collagen and fat. The meat content varies by brand, but is typically low, meaning that protein contribution is unlikely to match expectations. Other ingredients include starch, oil, egg powder, glucose syrup as well as stabilisers and colourings – all of which mean chicken nuggets are likely to be high in fat, sugar and salt.

7. Reformulated potato snacks

Reformulated potato snacks, such as Pringles, are made from dehydrated processed potato, refined vegetable oils, rice and wheat flour, emulsifiers, salt and colouring. Depending on their flavour, they may also include monosodium glutamate, hydrolysed protein powders and glucose syrup.

During manufacture the ‘dough’ is rolled, pressed and cut into stackable shapes; these are then fried in hot oil and coated with flavourings. The high temperature potentially generates a substance called acrylamide, exposure to which may be carcinogenic, although the findings from human studies is inconsistent.

8. Margarine

Often marketed as ‘heart healthy,’ these spreads are highly processed. They typically combine different vegetable oils that undergo a process called hydrogenation – this solidifies the oil so it acts more like a solid fat. It's this process that creates ‘trans-fats’ which are now known to be as harmful to the heart as some saturated fats. Margarines also contain emulsifiers to improve their spreadability and colourings to mimic the appearance of butter.

9. Vegan 'cheese'

Often made from a plant-sourced, saturated fat like coconut oil, these 'cheese' alternatives rely on the addition of starch, stabilisers, colourings and flavourings to create a product that mimics real cheese. They usually contribute little (if any) protein, and no calcium. They are also typically high in fat, saturated fat and salt. Unlike other plant-based alternatives, vegan 'cheese' is not typically fortified with vitamins and minerals, and as such has a poor nutritional profile.

A ready meal in a microwave

10. Ready meals

Most of us are short on time, so it’s tempting to fall back on shop-bought ready meals. But with convenience comes cost, and not just a financial one; these meals typically contain preservatives and other additives frequently used in UPFs to make them last longer and look and taste good. Studies report that ready meals may have higher levels of ‘free’ sugars (the type we’re advised to cut back on), and are higher in calories than the homemade equivalent. Other research suggests supermarket ready meals fall short on nutritional contribution, with many being high in saturated fat and salt.

What does this mean for my health?

UPFs are typically designed to be easily eaten, with a high calorie density and additives that tend to confuse our “I am full” trigger. This gives them a moreish, addictive quality, meaning we’re likely buy and eat more. Their main ingredients – oil, sugar, salt, flour and starches – makes UPFs high in fat, sugar and salt and low in vitamins and minerals, while also being devoid of the protective plant compounds found in many whole foods.

To help avoid the UPF trap, as well as cooking more homemade meals from scratch, be sure to check labels. If there is one or more ingredient that sounds unfamiliar, limit the space you give these foods in your shopping basket. When you do eat UPFs, choose those that contribute some nutritional benefits, like wholegrain bread or baked beans. By minimising the number of UPFs in your diet, even by swapping out one or two regularly eaten ones – such as the type of bread and breakfast cereal you eat – you may reduce their associated health risks.

Enjoyed this? Now read…

Ultra-processed foods – what to avoid
What is processed food?
Is bread healthy?
Are fizzy drinks bad for you?
How much sugar is in a can of cola?
How much meat is safe to eat?


Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition and nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including Good Food.

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All health content on goodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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