Ultra-processed Foods – Convenience Food is Making Us Sick – Part 2

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


Processed foods:
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.


Ultra-processed foods:
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

UPFProcessedWhole food
Flavoured corn chipsTinned sweetcornCorn on the cob
Mass-produced white breadArtisan brown breadUnbleached flour, yeast, salt = make your own!
Protein Oat BarsHomemade flapjacksWhole oats
Low-sugar fruit cordialTinned fruit in syrupFresh fruit
Shop-bought pasta sauceTinned tomatoes and spicesFresh tomatoes and dried herbs
Low-fat yoghurtOrganic yoghurt with added fruitGreek yoghurt with berries and honey
Low-sugar jellyFruit only jellyHomemade jelly
Cheese stringsCheese trianglesCheddar cheese slices
Quorn sausagesTofu sausagesTofu
Vegan cheeseArtisan cashew cheeseYeast Flakes
Gravy granulesOrganic stock cubeHomemade 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.



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  1. I am interested in yoghurt line. Organic Natural yoghurt (without fruit added) I assume is a better choice than shop bought fruit yoghurts. But I don’t follow the Whole Food move from Organic Yoghurt Natural to Greek Yoghurt which is not organic. & is organic sheep or goat yoghurt better than non organic Greek yoghurt?
    I have no knowledge of the yoghurt making process. I currently buy Yeo Valley; Skyr sometimes; Waitrose Greek nice too. I eat a pot each week (450g or smaller) and vary the fat %.

    Absolutely not Quorn Sausages; nor Tofu. Whole food perhaps better is Edamame Beans (young soya beans). What do you think?

    1. They key to this is not whether it is organic or not, it’s whether there are food-like ultra-processed ingredients added like flavourings, thickeners, artificial sweeteners etc – if you go for the plain Greek yoghurt then add fruit or find the brands who add real fruit and not much else!

      Tofu and edamame ok – quorn very highly processed!