Evidence has linked ultra processed food consumption with obesity and a range of health risks. So what are actually are they? And how can you avoid them?

 

ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS: WHY THEY’RE A PROBLEM

 
As a nation we eat far too much ultra processed food. Data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2008–2014) found that ultra processed foods (UPFs) account for 56.8% of total energy intake and 64.7% of total free sugars in the UK diet.
 
More recent research from Imperial College highlighted that ultra processed foods make up a considerably high proportion of children’s diets. More than 60% of calories on average came from UPFs. The higher the proportion of UPFs they consume, the greater the risk of becoming overweight or obese.

 

Research has not only linked UPF consumption to higher risks of obesity, but also high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some cancers.

 

Simply put: the less we eat, the better.

 

HOW TO SPOT ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS

 
Some UPFs are easier to spot than others. Learning how to identify them is key if you’re keen to minimise you’re intake.
 
In terms of food processing, there are four established categories. They go from unprocessed to ultra processed. For more information on this, here are the NOVA groups for food processing.

 

How to spot a UPF, the three criteria:
 
1. Comes in a packet
 
2. Contains more than five ingredients
 
3. Contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra processed food group.
Either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing (such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents).
 

SURPRISING EXAMPLES

 
Certain foods are more easily recognisable as ultra processed than others. Here are a few examples you might find surprising. You can click the links to view the list of ingredients in the products.
 

Hovis Wholemeal Sliced Bread
 
Eat Natural bars
 
Activia Yoghurt
 
Belvita Breakfast Biscuits
 
Proper Chips Lentil Chips (same goes for Popchips and Hummus Chips)
 
Why have I chosen these brands to highlight? Because these foods are positioned as healthy. Words like ‘wholemeal’, ‘natural’ and ‘lentil’ can lead us to believe they’re good for us. That’s before we get onto the imagery and other clever marketing terms used. There are plenty more obvious examples.

 

TIPS FOR AVOIDING ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS

 
Awareness is key. Once you’re aware of the the defining characteristics of UPFs, it won’t take you long to identify them in the supermarket. Here are a few more ways to avoid UPFs:
 

Choose single ingredient foods as much as possible.
 
Cook from scratch where you can.
 
Read labels – look at the ingredients lists to know what you’re consuming.
 
Make swaps. For example, plain, natural, organic yoghurt is a much better option than processed low fat yoghurts.
 

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