By Tor West Image: KIRSTY BEGG/STOCKSY UNITED
Ultra-processed food (UPF) has been making headlines recently, and with good reason. Despite being linked to countless health problems including diabetes, obesity and gut issues, UPFs still account for 57% of our total food intake in the UK. Part of the problem is, UPFs aren’t just junk foods by another name; they also include breakfast cereals, protein bars and plant milks. To find out more – including the simple swaps to make for better health – we asked four experts to answer our questions.
First, what exactly is ultra-processed food?
“Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are products made by the food industry to create convenience – think breakfast cereals, commercial bread and bread products, biscuits, cakes, snacks, crisps, frozen pizza, vegan convenience foods, muesli bars, canned drinks and more. These foods are usually foods that provide ease – they are quick to buy, cook or consume. They usually come in plastic trays, tubs or pouches or enclosed in cardboard boxes. As a rule of thumb, if a food contains an ingredient you don’t recognise, or contains something you wouldn’t have in your kitchen, it’s highly likely it’s a UPF.” – Dominique Ludwig, nutritionist
How do they differ to processed foods?
“Most processed foods are generally recognisable as their original form – think canned fish or tinned fruit in syrup. They contain a smaller number of ingredients, mostly those often found in your store cupboard. For example, even though it’s been processed, fresh bread is made with flour, yeast, salt and water – all ingredients you’ll have at home. An ultra-processed loaf of bread will also contain additives and E-numbers designed to make a product taste better and give it a longer shelf life. Drying, milling and canning are all examples of processing of food – but these processes do not change the nutrition content of the food significantly or the way our bodies process them.” – Dominique
Check the food you’re buying has no MORE THAN FIVE INGREDIENTS. If it’s more than this, IT’S LIKELY ULTRA-PROCESSED.
Why are these foods bad for us?
Why are these foods bad for us?
“According to recent research, our brains start to rewire when we consume large amounts of UPFs – the result is that we want to eat more, similar foods to feel satiated, as well as hit the dopamine (reward) centres in our brain. In short, we become overfed but undernourished – because UPFs are addictive. When we eat food in its natural state, we need to chew it more to break it down. The presence of fibre, protein and fat also mean we can’t absorb all the calories from our food, and we use more energy breaking it down. The opposite is true for UPFs. They also enter the bloodstream more quickly, leading to sugar spikes, increased fat storage, inflammation and imbalanced hormones.
I see a significant number of adults with very low omega-3 levels, and this is often down to UPFs. These essential fats are critical for a healthy brain and reducing inflammation. There are also certain nutrients that are harder to obtain on a highly processed diet, such as B vitamins, iron, zinc, iodine, selenium and magnesium – nutrients that are essential for energy production, detoxification and brain and thyroid function. Plus, UPFs are often low in fibre and protein, both of which are important for promoting feelings of fullness and satiety.” – Dominique