What foods are ultra-processed and bad for you? List more expert opinions on health impact

Ultra-processed foods include things you might think are unhealthy like cakes and cookies, but they also include some cereals, breads, and yogurts

Foods can be divided into four categories, from unprocessed to ultra-processed.

Despite being an unfamiliar term, much of what we eat will fall into the latter bracket.

This refers to how much processing the food has undergone in its production, tending to indicate that something will contain additives that are not used in home cooking.

Ultra-processed foods include things you might think are unhealthy like chips and cookies, but they also include some cereals, breads, and yogurts.

So what does the term really mean, and are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

Ultra-processed foods include things you might think are unhealthy like cakes and cookies, but they also include some cereals, breads, and yogurts

Ultra-processed foods include things you might think are unhealthy like cakes and cookies, but they also include some cereals, breads, and yogurts

Chips are another thing that we eat a lot and that is classified as ultra-processed

Chips are another thing that we eat a lot and that is classified as ultra-processed

Fruits and vegetables are at the opposite end of the food spectrum, having just been altered from their natural state

Fruits and vegetables are at the opposite end of the food spectrum, having just been altered from their natural state

What are the four food categories?

The Nova food classification divides foods into four categories based on how much they were processed during production.

One: unprocessed and minimally processed

The first group includes foods such as fruit and vegetables, milk, fish and eggs, which we buy without adding any ingredients, therefore very similar to their natural state.

Two: oils, fats, salt and sugar

This is also called processed culinary ingredients and refers to products that have been extracted from natural foods or processes.

This group includes seed oils, butter and honey.

Three: processed foods

These are foods produced by combining members of groups one and two, so it includes fresh bread, pickled vegetables, and cured meats.

Four: ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods

Some common examples of ultra-processed foods are:

  • Ice-cream
  • French fries
  • Cookies
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Flavored yogurts
  • Sausages
  • Mass-produced bread
  • dried ham
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Instant soups

These often have five or more constituent ingredients, including additives not used in home cooking.

These additives could include preservatives, emulsifiers and sweeteners.

How do I know if my food is ultra-processed?

Long ingredient lists will often be a surefire way to know that the food you’re buying is ultra-processed.

If you take a more detailed look at these ingredients and see things you don’t recognize, or words you’re unable to pronounce, that’s also a good indication.

A long shelf life could also be a sign of ultra-processed food, as this could be because it contains preservatives.

Finally, check the colored gauges for sugar, salt, and fat content — ultra-processed foods often score high on these.

Are ultra-processed foods bad for you?

Ultra-processed foods often contain high amounts of salt, sugar and saturated fat, leaving less room for more beneficial ingredients.

There is also a large and growing body of research linking increased consumption of ultra-processed foods to negative health outcomes such as cancer.

However, these studies only show correlation, not direct causality, with a suggestion that a diet that includes more ultra-processed foods is only indicative of a more unhealthy lifestyle overall.

WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET BE LIKE?

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS

Eat at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. They count all fresh, frozen, dried, and canned fruits and vegetables

Meals based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains

30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: five servings of fruits and vegetables, two whole-grain cereal biscuits, two thick slices of whole-grain bread, and one large baked potato in the skin

Have some dairy or dairy-based alternatives (such as soy drinks), choosing options that are low in fat and sugar

Eat beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins (including two servings of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)

Choose unsaturated oils and creams and consume them in small quantities

Drink six to eight cups/glasses of water a day

Adults should get less than 6 g of salt and 20 g of saturated fat for women or 30 g for men per day

Source: NHS Eatwell Guide

What do the experts say?

Experts have insisted that there are such things as ultra-processed healthy foods, or at least not unhealthy ones.

Professor Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition expert at the University of Reading, has criticized the label for being too vague.

He told MailOnline: ‘The problem, especially now with the cost-of-living crisis, is people are avoiding perfectly good, affordable food because they deem it ‘unhealthy’.

“We’ve had the same problem with frozen vegetables, even though they aren’t ultra-processed, for some reason they’re considered ‘less healthy.'”

However, TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has devoted a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods, or as some call them, “industrially produced edibles.”

TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has dedicated a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods

TV doctor Chris van Tulleken has dedicated a book to the dangers of ultra-processed foods

He said: ‘These substances can’t even be called ‘food.’ Increasingly, the calories we consume come from modified starches, invert sugars, hydrolysed protein isolates and refined, bleached, deodorized and hydrogenated seed oils.

“That means everything from chicken nuggets to ice cream can be made with the same base liquids and powders.”

The British Heart Foundation advises focusing on balancing your diet, rather than cutting out ultra-processed foods altogether.

He points out that not all ultra-processed foods are created equal, with bread largely incomparable with chips and sweets, despite all falling into the ultra-processed category.

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