The ultra-processed foods that could be lurking in your ‘healthy’ diet - Nutrition

But not all processed foods harm your health

It pays to check the labels when venturing along supermarket aisles in order to discover what foods are really 'ultra-processed'
It pays to check the labels when venturing along supermarket aisles in order to discover what foods are really 'ultra-processed' (monticelllo/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

We have all heard the term ‘ultra-processed food’ (UPF) by now, and most of us have a fair idea of what the term means.

A 2024 study suggested that a diet high in UPFs puts us at increased risk of 32 different health problems, including cardiovascular disease (50% increased risk), anxiety and mental health disorders (48-52% increased risk) and type 2 diabetes (12% increased risk).

Interestingly, although most of us know that they are bad for our health, a recent study of 75,000 consumers showed that just 30% could define an ultra-processed food and 20% of those surveyed had never heard the term before.

Could UPFs be lurking in your shopping basket of healthy food?

Avoiding UPFs starts with knowing what they are. If your trolley contains foods like cooked ham, low fat mayonnaise, bread, flavoured and low fat yoghurts, margarines and breakfast cereals, you could unwittingly be eating more than your fair share of UPFs, despite their deceptively innocent looking packaging.

Here are some simple guidelines to help you spot a UPF:

  • Take a look at the ingredients list. If you recognise everything in your packaged food as a real food ingredient, something that you are likely to find in your kitchen cupboard, then go for it. If you see ingredients like emulsifiers, fillers, flour improvers, artificial sweeteners, then you are choosing a UPF.
  • Do you choose ‘lite’, low fat or low calorie foods? These tend to be highly processed. Again, check out the ingredient list. Any food that contains an artificial sweetener is an ultra-processed food. Take a closer look at your low fat yoghurts, light bars and reduced calorie sauces, mayonnaise and other foods and you will see that most of these contain ingredients like aspartame (E951), acesulfame K (E950), erythritol (E968), saccharin (E954), sorbitol (E420), steviol glycosides (E960), sucralose (E955) and other sweeteners. Sometimes these are added to savoury foods to disguise the unpleasant taste of other additives and preservatives.
  • Protein bars, fortified cereals and other foods with health claims could be tagged with the UPF label too. One of the most popular protein bars on the market claims to be high protein, low sugar, enriched with 9 vitamins. So far, so good, but read the ingredients list and you are faced with ingredients including maltitol, emulsifier (lecithins), natural vanilla flavouring, humectant (glycerol), polydextrose, sweetener (sucralose). A lot less appetising...
  • For many people, adopting a plant-based diet is a way to improve one’s health, but in some cases this could be more detrimental to health than beneficial. Fake meat, or vegan protein alternatives like quorn products, vegi burgers, plant milks and margarines are some of the most processed foods on the supermarket shelves.

The best way to avoid UPFs completely is to cook all your food from scratch. I know that this is not always possible, but the more you cook, the better it is for your health.

steaming mixed vegetables in the wok, asian style cooking vegetarian and healthy, selected focus, narrow depth of field
Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is the best way to be sure of avoiding ultra-processed food (fermate/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Not all processed foods are UPFs

Preserving techniques like canning and bottling help to prolong the shelf life of a food, without the need to add any anti-nutrients. In fact, adding some processed food to your diet could do your health more good than harm. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Natural of Greek yoghurt – go for the plain one, not flavoured, low fat or low calorie.
  • Tinned tomatoes, passata and tomato puree.
  • Tins or packs of pulses – chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans.
  • Houmous – just make sure it’s the full fat one and read the ingredients list before you pop it in your trolley.
  • Ready salted crisps are a safer bet than most other flavours and definitely less processed than most of the light and low fat options available.
  • Sparkling water is a better choice than flavoured water, cordials and diet drinks where you will find sweeteners.