Ultra-processed foods – what to avoid
Research suggests that ultra-processed foods are bad for our health, but how do we identify and avoid them?
In the UK, more than half the average diet is made up of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and it’s bad news for our health. There’s been increasing evidence suggesting a range of health problems might be caused by eating highly processed foods, but two new large studies have now connected eating UPF with greater risk of cardiovascular disease and death. In particular, the research pointed to 10 per cent increase in heart disease along with a staggering 62 per cent increased risk of death (of all causes) when more than four servings of ultra-processed foods were consumed per day.
What are UPFs?
Researchers developed a system, called Nova, to categorise foods depending on how processed they are. There is a ‘sliding scale’ of processing, from raw, natural fruit and vegetables, through products that have been extracted or milled (like sugar or oil) so they can be used as ingredients in cooking, then foods that are described as ‘processed’ but that have generally been treated to help them last longer or make them into a different – but still fairly simple – food. Tinned vegetables and fish, cheese and cured meats are all processed foods. Read more about how foods are classified.
Ultra-processed foods are in a separate category, but it can be tricky to differentiate between UPFs and processed foods. UPFs are classically devoid of any nutritional value because they have undergone varying industrial processes. Because they are usually affordable, convenient and ‘hyper-palatable’ options (combining fat, sugar and carbohydrates), they have become the go-to choice for many people. According to the research, UPF’s account for around 25-60 per cent of daily energy intake in many countries, including the UK.
These highly modified foods can be both sweet and savoury and some typical examples include packaged biscuits and cakes, frozen ready meals, cold cuts and sugary cereals such as muesli, cornflakes and granola, which are often marketed as healthy breakfast options but actually contain surprisingly high amounts of sugar.
How to spot UPFs
Figuring out where a given food is on the spectrum can be a minefield, but there are some red flags to watch out for. These will help you make more informed decisions when it comes to what you’re putting on your plate.
- Ready-to-eat ultra-processed foods are usually high in low-cost, high-flavour ingredients such as trans fats, sugar and salt. Too much of any of these are known to be harmful to health. Trans fats are often included on labels as ‘hydrogenated fat’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’.
- To judge whether the sugar, sodium (salt) and saturated fat content is high, scour the per 100g column on the nutritional information table or look at the traffic light label on the front of packaging. As a general guideline, high-sugar foods contain more than 22.5g of total sugars, high-sodium foods contain more than 1.5g and high-saturated-fat foods equates to more than 5g per 100g. Bear in mind, even if a food product is high in all of these categories, it isn’t necessarily an ultra-processed food – although it's probably worth avoiding because it is unhealthy.
- Also, look at food labels and beware of ingredients that you don’t recognise or that don’t sound like a food. Some examples of these chemicals include high-fructose corn syrup and hydrolysed proteins, along with additives such as flavour enhancers, artificial colours, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents. These ingredients are often to make the end product look or taste more like the food it’s supposed to mimic (for instance a smoky flavouring being added to a burger that's designed to be microwaved rather than barbecued).
- Read the sell-by date of food products. A long shelf life can often (but not always) be a giveaway of a UPF. For instance, if baked goods – which you would usually expect to be eaten fresh (within a couple of days) – have a use-by date a month or more into the future, you can reasonably assume they are ultra-processed. The exception is food kept in brine like olives or tuna, or tinned fruit or veg, where there are minimal preservatives.
- Very often, UPFs are marketed for their convenience. Mass-produced ready-made or ‘instant’ foods that are ready-to-eat or heat, are likely to be ultra-processed.
- A final method for catching UPFs is to look at the ingredients and consider whether you could cook the same product at home with the ingredients listed on the packaging. If there are lots of ingredients that you don’t recognise, or can’t get in the supermarket, it’s a sign that the food is probably ultra-processed.
Why should I avoid UPFs?
There’s mounting evidence linking UPFs to harmful health effects. A 2019 study found that people following a UPF diet over a two-week period gained 2 lbs on average, while a separate group that followed an unprocessed diet actually ate less and lost weight over the same period. Another study from 2022 of over 10,000 adults found that, where 60 per cent or more of a person’s calorie intake came from UPFs, the more likely an individual was to experience mild depression or anxiety. Over-consumption of UPFs also affects cognitive function with a study of over 11,000 Brazilian adults demonstrating a 28 per cent decline in cognitive functions such as learning, reasoning and problem-solving where more than 20 per cent of daily calorie intake came from UPFS.
The bottom line
A diet focused around whole foods is known to be the healthiest way to eat, even if it's not necessarily the most convenient. Knowing how to spot UPFs and being aware of the health issues should help you to eat fewer.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.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 healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.