Hot dogs, fries and burgers

What is processed food?

What does processed and ultra-processed food really mean? Are we eating too much of it and does it affect our children's health? Dietitian Frankie Phillips explains all... 

Should families cut back on processed food?

In the UK. we seem to eat a lot of processed food. In fact, it’s estimated that over 56% of the total calories that the average UK person consumes is from processed foods and that this was higher in children and adolescents. The UK also buys more processed foods that those in  Europe. If you look in the supermarkets, there are hundreds of ready-to-go meals and convenience foods lining supermarket shelves and freezers. But processed and convenience foods cover a wide range of foods, and not all of them are ‘bad’ for your family’s health.

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This guide is part of our new Beyond Natural series, in collaboration with BBC Future, which is an exploration into the world of food processing. For more guides on this, visit our hub page.

What is processed food?

Processing methods include washing, chopping, pickling, smoking, heat treatments such as pasteurising, fermentation, freezing, packaging and the addition of ingredients, which may change the characteristics of the flavour, shelf-life and even nutritional content of food. While processed foods often have a bad press, many of the processes have been used for centuries.

What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed food is characterised as ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products manufactured mostly from multiple ingredients usually combined with additives, or ‘industrial formulations’, by which flavour, sugar, fats or chemical preservatives are added. This can include confectionery, fried snacks, processed meats, cakes and biscuits. A 2020 study concluded that ultra-processed foods are prevalent in diets worldwide, and that the consumption of these foods offers no beneficial outcomes. In fact, of the 43 studies reviewed, 39 of them found at least one adverse health coutcome when ultra-processed foods were consumed.

Is processed food unhealthy?

While there’s not a problem with including some processed foods as part of a balanced diet, there is growing concern that ultra-processed foods contain a lot of added salt, sugar and fat, and are often low in fibre. In one recent study, researchers calculated that for each 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods eaten, there could be a 14% higher risk of early death.

A 2018 study also found a positive association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and body fat during childhood and adolescence.

Another study questioned whether the rise in ultra-processed food is to blame for the obesity epidemic. In this study, researchers compared the obesity rates in a country with the amount of ultra-processed foods eaten and found that the greater the availability of ultra-processed foods in a country, the higher the rate of obesity. The UK had the highest rate of obesity (24.5%) and also had the highest household availability of ultra-processed foods (50.4%). This was also confirmed in a study that took 20 weigh-stable adults and fed them an ultra-processed diet for two weeks. They found that both energy intake increased and subsequently weight increased, compared to those consuming an unprocessed diet. Whilst this is a small sample study, limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet may help prevent obesity.

Is there a place for healthy processed food?

One of the key dietary recommendations is to eat at least five fruit and veg per day. These can be fresh but juiced. canned, frozen and dried count. However, it is recommended to drink no more than 150ml of unsweetened fruit juice, vegetable juice or smoothie a day because of their higher sugar content. It is also recommend to eat dried fruit at mealtimes and no more than 30g a day, to reduce the risk of tooth decay

Clearly processed fruit and veg is a healthy choice and can be highly convenient, and this can help people to meet the recommended target. In fact, some nutrients are more easily available due to the processing, for example, the amount of vitamin C in some frozen vegetables can even be higher than fresh ones that have been left on the shelf or in the fridge unused for a few days.

Another example of useful processing is seen with plant-based milks. Soya or oat milk substitutes are naturally very low in calcium, some vitamins and iodine but if these are fortified with nutrients during processing, the amounts of vitamins and minerals bring them more nutritionally in line with cow’s milk. This fortification means that those people who choose to avoid cow’s milk can still get the nutrients they need. Just look for the unsweetened varities where you can.

How can I cut down on processed foods?

A healthy diet means eating a variety of nutritious foods from different food groups. In the UK, food-based dietary guidance (The Eatwell Guide) shows how foods we eat can provide the balance of nutrients needed for good health. Many of the foods depicted on the guide are processed to some degree, such as breads, cheese, frozen vegetables, pasta and yogurt. However, it makes sense to look at the foods you eat regularly to see if there are healthier options available, such as a low-salt or low-sugar variety.  Here are some tips to reducing processed foods in your diet:

When buying pasta sauces, take a look at the salt and fat content, and even the sugar content – you may be surprised at how much of these ingredients are in a ready-made brand. Alternatively, a healthier option would be to try to make one at home rather than buying a ready-made version, such as this roasted pepper sauce for pasta or chicken or a pasta with tomato & hidden veg sauce which has no added salt or sugar, and the vegetables means lots of added fibre

Trying making a homemade pizza, instead of a shop-bought or takeaway one, such as this pizza with homemade sauce or next level margherita pizza

Some recipes like homemade baked beans, meatballs and fishcakes are easier to make at home than you think, and it’s fine to use some ‘cheat’ processed ingredients, such as ready-to-use beans (canned in water not salt), ready-made tomato or garlic purée and ready-to-use spice or herb mixtures.

What should I look for on the label?

Not all processed foods are the same when it comes to health. For example, frozen peas are a better option than peas canned in salted water. The table below gives a list of some of the things to look for when buying canned fruit and veg which can be a very easy swap to make:

Avoid                                                        Choose instead

Canned fruit                  Canned in syrup or ‘light syrup’                Canned in natural juice

Canned vegetables      Canned in salted water                              Canned in water

Canned fish                   Canned in brine                                         Canned in spring water or olive oil

Looking at the label can be a good starting point when comparing the nutritional contents of processed foods. Many foods are labelled on the front of pack with ‘traffic light’ labels for fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. If a food is labelled red, it doesn’t mean that you need to completely avoid it, for example, cheese is usually high (red) for fat and salt, but it is a good way of including protein and calcium too as part of a balanced diet.

Also don’t forget fibre – this is usually included in the nutrition panel on packs rather than the traffic lights. Choose higher fibre options where possible as the recommended 30g of fibre per day is currently achieved by only a small proportion of the population.

Processed foods such as ready meals, soups and sandwiches are really variable in the amount of fat, salt and sugar they contain, so if you are opting for a ready-made option sometimes, spend a moment comparing the labels and you might be surprised at the difference between two products that look quite similar. And remember, if it’s homemade, you’re in greater control of the ingredients, and can choose to cut back on those which are unnecessary.

Read more on children and health

Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years of experience.

This article was updated on 25 February 2019. 

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