Posted on January 30, 2024 by Kate Halsall

Our predictions of fitness trends for 2024 included a focus on ultra-processed food and your health. And we were right! These energy dense, low nutrient, additive filled, convenient and reasonably cheap foods; are widely available and may already form part of your diet without you even properly realising it. But surely everything is ok in moderation right? Whilst this “moderation” does have its merits, it’s essential to consider the implications, especially in the context of ultra-processed foods, on your health.

The Nature Of Ultra-Processed Foods

The British Heart Foundation state that “more than half of the energy (calories) an average person in the UK eats and drinks comes from ultra-processed foods“.

If you pick up a packet of something – say breakfast cereal or sliced bread; how many ingredients does it contain? Do you know what they all are? If you were cooking a fresh meal at home, would you be using high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, modified starches, hydrogenated oils, colourings, de-foaming, bulking, or bleaching agents? Simply put, ultra-processed food contains industrial substances that you won’t find in your kitchen; and whilst it sounds disgusting, we usually find them very tasty – think fizzy drinks and packaged snacks!

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods – The NOVA Classification System

Food and drink are divided into 4 categories.

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. A food isn’t automatically bad for you just because it has been processed in some way — which is the case with minimally processed foods. These are foods which may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised. The key is that they contain no added ingredients. Think: fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds.

Processed ingredients. By this we mean foods that are added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves. Think oils, butter, sugar and salt.

Processed foods. A combination of 1 & 2. So imagine you’re cooking your evening meal at home from scratch and add butter and salt to it i.e. so you are using unprocessed or minimally processed foods and adding processed ingredients to it. Processed foods include tinned vegetables, canned fish, freshly made bread and cheese.

Ultra-processed foods. These contain ingredients (usually a long list of them!) that you wouldn’t add when cooking homemade food. BBC Food provide examples such as:

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks (ice cream, confectionery, crisps)
  • Mass-produced pastries, cakes and biscuits
  • Margarines and spreads
  • Cereal and energy bars
  • Milk drinks, cocoa drinks
  • Fruit yogurts and fruit drinks
  • Vegan ‘meat’ and ‘cheese’ alternatives
  • Ham and sausages

We Already Know These Aren’t Exactly Healthy Foods!

Yes that’s true – we’re not teaching you anything new with this list. But the list also contains most breads and breakfast cereals, so we do need to be double checking those ingredients on packets! And everyone knows that too much saturated fat, salt and sugar is not good for you and are linked to obesity and diabetes. So are ultra-processed foods different? The studies are ongoing, but the current concern are:

  • They can be more palatable than other foods (they taste nicer), which may mean you eat more and take on more calories, leading to weight gain.
  • They could disrup your gut microbial health due to the lack of fibre in them which could be linked to inflammatory & digestive conditions, such as Inflammatory Bowl Disease and Irritable Bowl Syndrome
  • There is a lack of nutrients that the body requires.

Food For Thought

Everything in moderation – yes, but if something you buy from a shop where the food label contains more than 5 ingredients and some of those you wouldn’t cook with – question whether you should be eating it!

For example, here are the ingredients for a ham sandwhich no mayo:

INGREDIENTS: White Bread (Fortified Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Water, Yeast, Salt, Emulsifiers: Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, Mono- and Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids; Wheat Gluten, Rapeseed Oil, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid; Wheat Flour, Wheat Starch), Oak Smoked Formed Ham with Added Water (34%) (Pork, Water (6%), Salt, Stabiliser: Sodium Phosphate; Antioxidant: Sodium Ascorbate; Preservative: Sodium Nitrite), Butter (Cows’ Milk).

It contains emulsifiers, treatment agents, stabilisers, antioxidant and a preservative. Hopefully this blog helps you make a more informed decision when it comes to choosing your food!