What are ultra-processed foods?
Concerns about the health impacts of eating too much ultra-processed food are currently making news. Find out how to identify these foods and why you might want to limit them in your diet, then test your knowledge with our quiz!
You have probably heard of processed food and perhaps know that eating too much of it doesn’t make for a healthy diet. But what is ultra-processed food and why has it received a lot of media attention recently?
Ultra-processed food (UPF) is food that you wouldn’t be able to recreate in your own kitchen. If you don’t recognise some of the ingredients on the label, it’s likely to be an ultra-processed food. It is manufactured to be convenient and cheap, has a long shelf life and is generally ready to eat or ready to heat. These foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, so you’re likely to want to eat more of them.
Typically, industrially produced UPFs contain additives such as artificial flavours, emulsifiers, colouring and sweeteners (which are often cheaper and less likely to go off than natural ingredients), as well as preservatives to increase their shelf life. These foods may also contain substances from the packaging they are in contact with.
Examples, include confectionery, fried snacks, processed meats, cakes and biscuits. They tend to be energy dense but low in nutrients, so aren’t good for you.
The UK is one of the biggest consumers per head in Europe of UPFs, with manufacturers often keen to produce more and more of these industrial, cheap foodstuffs.
What’s the difference between processed and ultra-processed food
The usual definition of UPF is based on the NOVA classification system, which divides food and drink into four categories:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
These are fundamentally natural foods (plant and animal) that you would prepare and cook at home. They might undergo some minimal processing – such as removing inedible parts, cooking, drying, preserving (eg freezing) or treatment to make them safer to eat (eg pasteurising, filtering). Seeds, eggs, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables are all included.
2. Processed ingredients
Usually culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, these are likely to be used in combination with natural foods and aren’t normally consumed by themselves.
3. Processed foods
These are often a combination of group 1 and 2 foods – natural foods which have been modified to make them taste better or last longer. They include tinned vegetables, canned fish, freshly made bread and cheese.
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4. Ultra-processed foods
More a ‘formulation’ than a food, these are made from substances derived from wholefoods, plus additives, but contain little or no category 1 foods.
Although useful, this system isn’t always simple or clear cut. Some foods can be processed to varying degrees, and could therefore fit into more than one category depending on their formulation or ingredients. For instance, peanut butter can be made purely from crushed peanuts (category 1), it could have added salt, sugar and/or oil (category 2), or it could also contain preservatives or other artificial additives which would push it into category 4. Similarly, plain yogurt is a category 1 food, but fruit yogurts (with sweeteners, preservatives, stabilisers or colourings added) would count as ultra-processed. Another complication is that less healthy foods, such as heavily processed meats, feature in the same category as some healthier foods – such as sliced wholemeal bread, canned baked beans or wholegrain breakfast cereals.
Test yourself: scroll down for our quiz…
List of ultra-processed foods
- Carbonated drinks; energy drinks
- Sweet or savoury packaged snacks (ice cream, confectionery, crisps)
- Mass-produced packaged breads, pastries, cakes and biscuits
- Margarines and spreads
- Breakfast cereals; cereal and energy bars
- Milk drinks, cocoa drinks
- Fruit yogurts and fruit drinks
- Meat and chicken extracts and instant sauces
- Vegan ‘meat’ and ‘cheese’ alternatives
- Infant formulas; follow-on milks
- Health and slimming products such as powdered or fortified meal and dish substitutes
- Many ready-to-heat products (pre-prepared pies, pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish nuggets and sticks; sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products, and powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles and desserts)
When products made solely of group 1 or group 3 foods also contain cosmetic or sensory intensifying additives, such as plain yogurt with added artificial sweeteners, and breads with added emulsifiers, they are classified in group 4.
Distilled alcoholic drinks (such as whisky, gin, rum, vodka) are included in group 4; alcoholic drinks produced by fermentation (wine, beer, cider) are group 3.
Are ultra-processed foods bad for us?
As the ways in which foods can be processed differ so widely, it’s likely their effects on our health vary, too. Some, such as fortified foods including breakfast cereals and plant-based dairy alternatives, could even reasonably be included in a healthy diet because they help support certain groups of people in achieving their micronutrient requirements. However others, such as sausages, have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
Most studies of UPFs are observational and are therefore unable to conclude cause and effect. But with research typically demonstrating that consumption of these foods offers no beneficial outcomes and, instead, a varying incidence of adverse health outcomes, moderating intake would seem sensible. For instance, a 2020 review of 43 studies, found at least one adverse health outcome associated with consumption of ultra-processed foods in 37 of them. Another large study of more than 100,000 French adults followed over five years showed that eating more ultra-processed foods was linked with a greater risk of heart disease.
A similar analysis of the same participants found that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was linked with a significant increased risk of more than 10% of overall cancer risk.
TV medic Dr Chris van Tulleken recently went on a diet of 80% ultra-processed food for 30 days, finding that he gained weight, felt sluggish, experienced heartburn, constipation, low libido, anxiety and poor sleep, and experienced more food cravings.
How to cut down on ultra-processed foods
Because UPFs have been designed to be convenient and cheap, it can take a little more effort or cost to reduce the amount you eat.
Aim to cook at home more, making your meals from scratch rather than using ready meals or cheats such as pre-made sauces or burgers. Using wholefoods, whether fresh, frozen or tinned, is the best way to ensure you’re avoiding ultra-processed foods. Batch cooking, when you can, will save you falling back on a takeaway when time is short. This simply involves cooking once but twice the amount and works well for lasagne, cottage and shepherd's pies, tagines, stews and curries.
When you’re eating out, ask the waiting staff how food is sourced and dishes prepared, and stick to simpler dishes including desserts. And in the shops look at ingredient labels and try not to choose foods where the ingredient lists look extensive and you don’t recognise the ingredients. If they seem man-made, they probably are.
It’s important to remember that the widespread availability and convenience of ultra-processed food means the majority of us will be including some of them in our diets. However, eating them occasionally, as opposed to consistently, as part of a varied, healthy and balanced diet is unlikely to cause a risk to your long-term health.
Reviewed on 8 June 2023 by Kerry Torrens
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a postgraduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & 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 past 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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