The second half of my blog on Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) focuses in more on why these foods are ultra-detrimental to our health, as well as going into how to make more informed choices when food shopping. (Here is part 1)
In the UK, over 50% of the average shopping basket contains UPFs, which is the highest consumption in Europe, and second to the USA worldwide. Some people’s shopping baskets are as much as 80% UPF.
I’d prefer the balance to be under 20% UPFs, with 80% fresh or minimally processed foods. With their brightly coloured, alluring packaging, an increase of availability of UPFs makes it all to tempting for us to avoid. Add to this that these products are filled with added salt, sugars, flavourings, and flavour enhancers creates a sensory overload that in turn creates UPFs addicts!
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3 ways UPFs can disrupt your health:
UPFs encourage overeating and obesity:
- Lack of nutrition – UPFs often don’t contain the variety of important nutrients contained in homemade food. Even when vitamins and minerals are added to the products, these are usually in the least bioavailable man-made form and not in the same diverse forms that mother nature provides. This means you would need great digestion and optimal cell health to make much use of these nutrients.
- The metabolism struggles – Due to the very make up of these foods, being chemically enhanced and full of fake flavours, our body’s metabolism gets confused and struggles to process them, leading to weight gain and fat cells being used as storage.
- Tastes great but not very filling – so you eat more of them.
- UPFs can be addictive – Ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) or similar glutamate-rich but more innocent-sounding ingredients such as yeast extract and natural flavourings are chemically driven, lighting up parts of the brain that make us keep going back for more (think of the slogan – ‘once you pop, you can’t stop’!).
- High fructose corn syrup or glucose-fructose syrup in the UK– this is a cheaper alternative to sugar, and contributes to obesity – consumption leads to increased abdominal fat, and higher levels of circulating triglycerides – both of which pose further risks to health.
- Leptin & Ghrelin – UPFs have also shown to disrupt the signalling of leptin – the hormone responsible for telling us when we are full and is balanced by an opposing hormone – ghrelin which tells us we are hungry. Both hormones play a part in regulating our metabolism and how effectively we utilise the food we have eaten. Because of how synthetic such food is – the body doesn’t know what it is working with, is essentially tricked, and we in turn keep eating. This is often why people graze all day.
All these factors can coexist and contribute to poor eating habits, overeating, and eventually – obesity.
UPFs can increase the risk of diabetes type 2:
- We know that a diet high in sugar leads to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and whilst we can make the obvious distinction between sweet foods and sugar content – we may not be aware of just how much of it is added in across the board – including in savoury food products – meaning that our daily intake of sugar is possibly much higher than we think.
- UPFs can lead to type 2 diabetes as they are generally high in sugar and other satisfying carbohydrates. Both affect blood glucose levels in the same way, potentially leading to insulin resistance.
- These foods often contain refined starches and modified starches which have a very high glycaemic index which means that insulin and blood sugar spikes as easily or worse than table sugar. Many gluten-free products have maize starch, tapioca starch or potato starch near the top of their ingredient list. Starches are also used as thickeners in sauces and yoghurts.
- A large study involving the UK, France and Spain determined a distinct correlation between UPF consumption and type 2 diabetes, on top of that, every 10% increase of eating UPFs equated to a 15% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
UPFs can contribute to poor mental health:
- Our brains, like the rest of our body needs to be fed and needs nutrients to function (omega 3, zinc, selenium, and iron to name but a few). Where UPFs are nutritionally deficient and of a low quality, it stands to reason that this will over time impact on brain health and mood, particularly when UPFs are taking the place of healthier whole food alternatives.
- UPFs can negatively impact on gut health and alter its microbiome. UPFs tend to be of low fibre – the gut’s microbiome ferments fibre into short-chain fatty acids, contributing to healthy intestinal function; so, if the microbiome becomes altered, then its function becomes compromised too.
- Add to this all the additives and chemicals and synthesized ingredients that pass through the intestinal tract and we start to see inflammation; an inflamed gut = an inflamed mind, communicated through the central system’s vagus nerve that acts as a messenger highway between the two; subsequently leading to increased risk of depression as well as learning and behavioural challenges
What Can You Do?
Cooking from scratch as much as possible is the key – this could be eating eggs or porridge for breakfast, homemade soup and bread for lunch and then a lovely home-cooked supper. Snacks can be fruit, nuts, seeds, chunks of cheese or homemade biscuits or muffins.
If you put real food ingredients in your shopping list and try and resist the middle aisles in the supermarket, laden with ready meals and convenience foods most of the time, then you are doing a brilliant job.
If you do still find yourself in those aisles, do some label reading and opt for brands that are organic, or ones that have much shorter ingredients lists. Remember it’s not about NO UPFs, it’s about minimising them to a sensible level, perhaps aiming for UPF’s to be a maximum 20% of your weekly shop.
Here is a traffic light system to help you choose healthier options – aim for 80% green or yellow.
Minimally processed and natural foods:
Meat, poultry, fish, offal, eggs, nuts, seeds, fresh vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, rice, grains, pseudo-grains, coconut, legumes/pulses, starchy root veg and tubers, mushrooms, fresh or dried herbs and spices, pasta, butter, ghee, cheese, pasteurised plain yoghurt, fresh or pasteurised milk, cream, honey, maple syrup, olive oil, duck/goose fat, beef dripping, tea, coffee
Tinned or bottled vegetables and pulses/legumes in brine or water; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; salted, dried, cured, or smoked meats and fish; canned fish (with or without added preservatives); granola (containing oats, nuts and dried fruit only); oatcakes; fruit in syrup (with or without added antioxidants); freshly made unpackaged breads, cheeses.
Fizzy drinks or cordials (sweetened or diet), crisps and packaged snacks; ice-cream; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and dairy-free spreads; biscuits (sweet and savoury), pastries, pastry, cakes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘energy’ bars; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and drinks; ‘instant’ sauces, ‘instant’ noodles, sweets, .
Many preprepared ready-to-heat products including pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, some sausages, some burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups and desserts. Infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby and toddler corn snacks.
N.B Home-made versions of the ultra-processed foods fit in the processed category. Burgers, biscuits and pasta dishes can be healthy if made from good quality ingredients.
Comparing Everyday UPF, Processed and Whole Foods
|Flavoured corn chips||Tinned sweetcorn||Corn on the cob|
|Mass-produced white bread||Artisan brown bread||Unbleached flour, yeast, salt = make your own!|
|Protein Oat Bars||Homemade flapjacks||Whole oats|
|Low-sugar fruit cordial||Tinned fruit in syrup||Fresh fruit|
|Shop-bought pasta sauce||Tinned tomatoes and spices||Fresh tomatoes and dried herbs|
|Low-fat yoghurt||Organic yoghurt with added fruit||Greek yoghurt with berries and honey|
|Low-sugar jelly||Fruit only jelly||Homemade jelly|
|Cheese strings||Cheese triangles||Cheddar cheese slices|
|Quorn sausages||Tofu sausages||Tofu|
|Vegan cheese||Artisan cashew cheese||Yeast Flakes|
|Gravy granules||Organic stock cube||Homemade stock|
|Cooked Ham (with dextrose, stabilisers and preservative)||Ham (with nitrates/nitrites)||Ham (salted)|
I hope these two blogs have been super helpful to you and have spurred you on to roll up your sleeves more in the kitchen and cook more from scratch. If you would like some recipe inspiration for healthier family cooking then look out from my cookbooks The Good Stuff and I Can’t Believe It’s Baby Food! as well as my recipe blog which I add to weekly.
- Ultra-processed foods: A global threat to public health
Ultra-processed foods: The case for re-balancing the UK diet
- Ultra-Processing or Oral Processing? A Role for Energy Density and Eating Rate in Moderating Energy Intake from Processed Foods
- Diet quality and depression risk: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies
- High-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain, researchers find
- The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review
- Ultra-processed food consumption and excess weight among US adults
- Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of depression in a Mediterranean cohort: the seguimiento universidad de navarra project
- Ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes incidence: A prospective cohort study
- Ultra-Processed Food Is Positively Associated With Depressive Symptoms Among United States Adults
- Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review
- Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health – Processing or Nutrient Content?
- Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé)