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 50% of the UK diet is based on processed foods, the highest in Europe. If you look in the supermarkets, there are hundreds of ready-to-go meals 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.
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’, and any foods that we are already advised to cut down on such as confectionery, fried snacks, processed meats, cakes and biscuits. Ultra-processed foods have recently been in the news linked to early death and obesity.
Is processed food unhealthy?
While there is not a problem with including some processed foods, there is growing concern that ultra-processed foods contain a lot of added salt, sugar and fat, and are often low in fibre. Two recent studies have highlighted this concern, in one 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.
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%). However, the relationship isn’t clear, as Portugal, which had the lowest level of ultra-processed foods (10.2%), also has a relatively high obesity rate.
Both of these studies raise concerns, but in both cases, it’s not possible to draw conclusions about any cause and effect relationship between food processing, mortality and obesity.
Is there a place for healthy processed food?
One of the key dietary recommendations is to eat at least 5 fruit and veg per day. These can be fresh but also juiced, canned, frozen and dried count. 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.
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.
For example, if you choose to eat pasta sauces, 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. You could try to make one at home rather than buying a ready-made version. Homemade hidden veg sauces can be made with extra vegetables and no added salt or sugar and with just a splash of olive oil so that you are in control of the amount of fat, salt and sugar in them and can add extra fibre with more vegetables. Similarly, a homemade pizza can be much lower in salt and fat than a ready-made version.
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 are in greater control of the ingredients and can choose to cut back on those which are unnecessary.
Read more on children and health
- How much sugar should children have?
- Healthy eating: what young children need
- Healthy eating: what schoolchildren need
- Childhood obesity - why is it on the rise?
- Type 2 diabetes and children
Dr Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and public health nutritionist specialising in infant and toddler nutrition with over 20 years' experience.
This article was updated on 25 February 2019.
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