What are Ultra-processed Foods and Do you Need to Avoid Them?

3 minutes read.

What Are Ultra-processed Foods?

This term comes from the NOVA food classification system developed by researchers of the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

They use this system based on how much the foods have been processed during their production and there are four categories.

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These include fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds that have no added ingredients and have barely been altered from their natural state.
  2. Processed Ingredients. These are foods that have been added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves like salt, sugar and oils.
  3. Processed foods. These are foods that are made by combining foods from 1. and 2. So, this would be foods that you could process at home like jam, pickles and homemade breads, for example, and other foods like tinned fruit and vegetables and cheeses.
  4. Ultra-processed foods. These are foods that typically contain 5 or more ingredients which you are unlikely to process at home. Ingredients such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners and artificial colours and flavours which give these foods a long shelf life and often taste delicious. Foods like ice cream, ham, sausages, crisps, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, instant soups, some alcoholic drinks like whisky, gin and rum, sliced bread, baked beans, breakfast cereals and plant-based meats.

Do We Need to avoid ultra-processed foods?

These foods can often contain high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fats. Therefore, they are linked to causing health problems like increased blood pressure, heart disease which could lead to strokes and even early death. One study of 10,000 Australian women tracked over 15 years, found that those who consumed the highest amounts of ultra-processed (UP) foods in their diets were 39% more likely to develop high blood pressure than those with the lowest amounts. However, this was only an observational study and other factors may be involved.

UP foods may also affect our gut health. However, more research is needed.

In the UK, UP foods make up 65% of children’s diets and over 50% of our weekly shop.

Before you may decide to attempt to eliminate UP foods from your diet, bear in mind, some of them are can be part of a healthy diet. Foods like bread, certain cereals and baked beans, for example. Also, it’s not always going to be convenient and even affordable for us to buy just minimally processed foods.

Furthermore, there are no clear guidelines to how much or how little of UP foods we can eat or not.

So, what can you do if you’re concerned about your level of UP food intake?

If you are a little concerned then maybe consider the following:-

  • Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Avoid or limit fizzy drinks.
  • Eat whole grain varieties of bread and pasta etc.
  • Check the traffic light food labels or whatever you have in your country for the salt, saturated fat and sugar content. (That’s if you have time!)
  • Avoid or limit red and processed meats.
  • Instead of buying sauces or ready meals, you could cook your favourites in larger amounts and freeze the extra portions to eat another day when you have little time.
  • Eat plain yoghurts and add fruit and nuts to it instead of eating fruit-flavoured yoghurts.
  • Eat porridge (oatmeal) in the mornings instead of sugary cereals. However, some cereals are perfectly healthy. Check the labels, if you’re concerned.

It’s really obvious which foods are so bad for you; I wouldn’t have thought that anyone would eat hotdogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for example! So, I think taking a common sense approach to our diets is needed. There’s not a lot of research and no clear guidelines on the amounts of UP foods that we can eat or not eat.

Even though I write a lot about healthy foods and eat them, I do enjoy crisps and biscuits and eat ready meals from time to time for convenience. I just don’t eat those foods every day.

What your thoughts on this? Feel free to comment below.

Thank you for reading.

Rachel x

3 thoughts on “What are Ultra-processed Foods and Do you Need to Avoid Them?

  1. Hi Rachel, I think it’s best to avoid these kinds of foods but it’s difficult. I have started making my own homemade soups because canned soups are so high in sodium. I think if we can be conscious about cutting down on these foods, it’s a big step in the right direction.

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