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Registered Associate Nutritionist

Registered Associate Nutritionist

Unmasking the Truth: The Real Deal Behind Ultra-Processed Foods


Ultra processed foods are becoming increasingly popular in today’s society and are often seen as a quick and easy way to get a meal or a snack. With the cost of living crisis that we are all going through at the moment, it can be challenging to try and get all the nutrients that we need. However, these kinds of foods can have potential health risks. Ultra-processed foods are those that have been heavily processed and contain added ingredients in order to make them to look tasty and appealing. They usually contain additives, preservatives, flavourings, and other artificial ingredients, often high in fat, sugar, salt, and can contain unhealthy trans fats as well. Heavily processed is a term that has different interpretations according to food experts, Nutritionists, and other health professionals. I am going to give my own views on ultra processed foods, and how we can adapt this to ensure that we can still have the best items, and ensure we still get the sufficient nutrients that we need, but reduce the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt.

There are different hierarchies of processed foods:

  • Frozen
  • Tinned/Canned
  • Packet Takeaway Foods
  • Fresh Takeaway Meals

All of the examples above have undergone a form of processing, which is important and necessary because this protects the foods from becoming bad, which can cause the consumer to become ill.  The degree of processing for each of the bullet points above vary depending on various processing methods used.  However, over the last decade I feel that the quality of the food, including the messages that processed foods portrayed has changed. Before the revolution of takeaway meals (like the companies like Deliveroo, Just Eat, etc) ready made/takeaway meals used to be available in frozen and microwave form. These kinds of meals had no nutritional value, and contained high fat, salt and sugar. Examples of these were foods like pizzas, certain curries, burgers etc. Fast forward ten years and in my opinion companies have now become more aware of the importance of good quality takeaway meals, taking into consideration what consumers want, which is a meal that is quick, low fat/salt/sugar , but also tasty. I have written about the different takeaway meals I have consumed in the past, and explained their various nutritional qualities, which I believe is better that what it used to be previously. Previously the biggest danger of ultra-processed foods is that they are often high in calories and low in nutritional value. This means we did not get the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients our body needs. I believe that we are now in a position that we are able to tailor our choices of ready made meals in lots of different ways. An example of this is looking at the back of the packaging, as we can go for lower sugar/saturated fat options, which are now widely available, as the potential danger of ultra-processed foods is that they can contribute to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. They can also worsen existing health problems, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which is the reason that we should choose healthier options.

The Government also made an impact on this, by encouraging big and popular food manufacturers to reduce the portion of takeaway foods being served to their customers. You can read more about this report here:

Evolution of Government Policy to tackle Obesity 

Another factor that plays a part in relation to Ultra Processed foods is sustainability. Consumers are becoming more conscious about climate change, their affects on food production, and where they come from. A recent study from the journal Food Quality and Preference, called “ Consumer understanding of sustainability concept in agricultural products” found that consumers that purchase food that is organic, tend to be more healthier and less processed. 

Consumer Understanding of Sustainability Concept in Agricultural Products

This is also similar to a recent study by the Environmental Research and Public Health , called “Nutritional Quality , Environmental Impact and cost of Ultra Processed Foods: A UK Food Based Analysis”

The study found that high nutritional quality foods tend to be more environmentally friendly, low in fat, sugar and salt, however more research is needed  because there needs to be more research into the composition of foods when foods are processed. 

Environmental Research In Public Health

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recently released a report into their comments on Ultra Processed Foods:

“increased consumption of (ultra-) processed foods was associated with increased risks of adverse health outcomes. However, there are uncertainties around the quality of evidence available. Studies are almost exclusively observational and confounding factors or key variables such as energy intake, body mass index, smoking and socioeconomic status may not be adequately accounted for

( Statement)

In summary SACN believes that this is an issue, however the evidence available is not enough to confirm that ultra processed foods are bad for us.

Going back to my original statement there are ways to reduce the consumption of ultra processed foods, minimising the intake of sugar, salt and saturated fat, and reducing the chances of dietary related conditions in the future. Here are my tips below:

·   Look at the back of the food packaging – this is very important as this contains details of what is in the product. I have written a guide to food labels here : Food Labels

·   Reduce the portions of unhealthy food items- consuming large amounts of foods which have higher amounts of salt, fat and sugar can increase the chances of dietary related diseases, reducing the amount of these, by minimising foods containing these, can help overall

·   Cooking at home- when we cook we can control the kind of food that is going into our meals, for example swapping salt for herbs/spices in stews, curries etc.

·   Controlling cravings- cravings tend to lead into consuming foods high in sugar, we can manage this by keeping a food diary, drinking water, and consuming snacks high in fibre, that can keep us fuller for longer

·   Focus on eating more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. These foods are packed with lots of nutrients and can help reduce the risk of developing these diseases.

It It is important to be aware of the potential dangers of ultra-processed foods and to try to limit your intake of them. Try to focus on eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. This will help ensure that you are getting the nutrients your body needs and can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases.



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