Ultra-processed Foods – Convenience Food is Making Us Sick

It is almost impossible these days to take a trip to the supermarket, convenience store or petrol station without being enticed to buy packets of tempting looking crisps, biscuits, ice cream and snack bars. But have you ever read the label? Do you know really what you are eating?

The UK population is currently on a very fast upward trajectory when it comes to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cancers and depression, and all of these metabolic, immune and psychiatric conditions are affecting both adults and children. In children, behavioural and developmental issues are also on the rise. The NHS and the government are very worried.

The current thinking is that this phenomenon is unlikely to be so much about the volume or fat, salt, sugar or protein we eat, but boils down to the fact that we are eating more and more ready-made convenience foods that we buy direct from the supermarket. Packaged food that we simply open up and heat up, or munch straight from the packet. “Food like substances” that have ingredient lists as long as your arm, and you would need a biochemistry degree to understand. These are collectively known as Ultra-Processed Foods (UPF’s).

It’s not just the junk food either! Unfortunately, many food manufactures have jumped onto the UPF band wagon and even some minimally processed foods have now been reformulated to be much more ultra-processed. These are often foods we have on our shopping list every day like bread, cereals, low-fat yoghurts, plant-based milks, pasta sauces and vegetarian burgers.

The raw reality is that most of the food sold in our shops are created by food scientists not chefs – and these food scientists have huge budgets to make them perfectly addictive in terms of taste and texture. The ultra-processed ingredients also give the product a long shelf-life and keeps the cost to the food manufacturer as low as possible.

The consumption of UPF foods has also been driven by consumer demand as well as government guidelines for more foods labelled as low calorie, low fat, low salt or sugar-free. There has also been an increased demand for pre-packaged ready to eat allergen-free or plant-based food options.

Often, the last thing these food scientists consider is the nutrition in a food product, and even when some of these foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals, they are often in the least bioavailable forms or simply because the end product does not contain enough of certain nutrients that are set by law.

For instance, by law, vitamin B1 (thiamine) must be added to all baby cereals, as they are so refined and stripped of goodness. Refined grains without the added thiamine may pose a higher risk of the baby developing a condition called beriberi which can lead to weight loss and developmental problems.

The solution to this huge UPF problem is cooking from scratch and to get into the habit of buying simple honest ingredients from your food shops to feed your family. But for the curious here is more details about ultra-processed foods.

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What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed foods mean exactly that – foods that have been processed from their whole food state into something else, foods that have had man-made interventions, and often food that has been packaged up with a very long ingredients list that you can barely decipher!

It is hard to class UPFs as food – when much of it contains synthetic ingredients. Such ‘food’ as a finished product is often manufactured on an industrial level and far removed from how they would be made in our own kitchens.

The NOVA Classification System

There was no clear or identifiable way to classify or group food in terms of how much it had been processed, until 2009 when a system by the University of Sao Paulo was devised. Known as the NOVA system, it categorises food by how much it has been processed and has since become widely recognised and adopted by governments worldwide.

NOVA 1: Minimally processed and natural foodWhole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meat and animal products. Also included are fruits, vegetables, meat and animal products that have been processed using techniques common in household kitchens, such as drying, crushing, grinding, steaming, boiling, roasting, chilling, and freezing.
NOVA 2: Culinary ingredientsSubstances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by industrial processes such as pressing, centrifuging, refining, extracting or mining. These are used to prepare, season and cook group 1 foods.

Thus, oils are used in the cooking of grains (cereals), vegetables and legumes (pulses), and meat, and are added to salads. Table sugar is used to prepare fruit-or milk-based desserts. These can include stews, soups, broths, salads, breads, jams, drinks and puddings. They are not meant to be consumed by themselves and are normally used in combination with Group 1 foods to make freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals.

NOVA 3: Processed foodsProducts made by adding group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods. Processes are used to increase shelf life or modify sensory qualities such as taste or form. For example, canning, bottling, and, in the case of breads and cheeses, using non-alcoholic fermentation.

Processed food products usually retain the basic identity and most constituents of the original food. But when excessive oil, sugar or salt are added, they become nutritionally unbalanced. Processed meats are included but should be minimal. These foods include bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads and yoghurts.

NOVA 4: Ultra-processed foodsFormulations of ingredients made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology. They typically contain little or no whole foods, are ready-to-consume or heat up, and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, and made using industrial additives and processes that wouldn’t be found in a household kitchen.

These are all the rest of the foods you find in your food shops with super long ingredient lists.

Examples of UPFs:

Fizzy drinks (sugary or sweetened); crisps and packaged snacks; chocolate, confectionery; ice-cream; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and other spreads; biscuits, pastries, cakes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and drinks; ‘instant’ sauces. Many preprepared ready-to-heat products including pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products; and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts. Infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products.

Unfortunately, UPF tends to be all the fun stuff! Things that we like to indulge in, is ready-made, and quick to grab – in other words convenience foods.

But whilst it offers such convenience, it is often at the expense of nutritional content. Such foods contain more salt, sugar/sweeteners, fats, additives and preservatives, chemicals, and E numbers to make it shelf stable, have a longer life, and most importantly reel us in with flavour!

When reading labels on UPFs, you will realise just how many ingredients there are in what may appear to be the simplest of products. A loaf of bread for example should be just flour, water, yeast and maybe a dash of salt – but in a supermarket, a basic white loaf’s labelling will also include chemical sounding names that you would have to Google to find out what they are.

Look out for these ingredients on your food labels:

  • Carbohydrate-based: Modified starches, glucose-fructose/glucose syrup, dextrose, lactose, maltodextrins
  • Fat-based: Refined, partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils.
  • Protein-based: Gluten, casein, soy, pea
  • Emulsifiers, firming agents. preservatives and additives: Soya lecithins, xanthan gum, pectins, guar gum, and carrageenans, acidity regulators (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, dipotassium phosphate, pyrophosphates, calcium propionate (E282).
  • Taste modifiers: such as monosodium glutamate, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and steviol glycosides, flavourings, natural flavourings, yeast extract, vegetable and fruit extracts.

How can I avoid UPF’s?

  • Aim for food in its whole state and cook from scratch as much as you can.
  • Batch cook things that you can then portion up and keep in the freezer
  • Learn how to cook/bake 1 x new thing a week
  • Try a food box scheme where recipes are included
  • Become a label reader! If you don’t know what the ingredients are, put it back
  • If you are buying processed food – limit your intake so it is not every day and try to find brands that have a shorter ingredients list with a better ratio of those you can understand to those with chemical sounding names!

Of course, it is difficult to avoid UPFs completely, but they should still be avoided as much as possible, as with everything – eat in moderation. Aim for a maximum 20% in your diet and you can’t go far wrong.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Here is Part 2

References and further reading:


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