What is ultra-processed food?

More than half the calories the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods. New research has linked these foods to early death and poor health. But what is ultra-processed food?

What’s the difference between minimally processed and ultra-processed?

The term ‘processed food’ has a bad rap, but cheese and fresh bread are both considered processed, so don’t always assume the worst. The NOVA food classification divides the foods we buy into four groups, from unprocessed to ultra-processed – but it may not always be clear which is which when you’re in the shops.

Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed

Unprocessed and minimally processed foods make up 30 per cent of the calories eaten in a typical UK diet.

Unprocessed foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish, milk and unprocessed meat.

Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients. They include frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen fish, pasteurised milk, 100 per cent fruit juice, no-added-sugar yoghurt, spices and dried herbs.

Group two: Processed culinary ingredients

Processed culinary ingredients, include oils, fats such as butter, vinegars, sugars and salt. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with foods in group one. Around 4 per cent of the calories we eat in the UK comes from this category.

Group three: Processed

Processed foods are products that are usually made using a mix of group one and two ingredients. They include smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread, bacon, salted or sugared nuts, tinned fruit in syrup, beer and wine. The main purpose of the processing is to prolong the food’s life or enhance its taste and almost 9 per cent of calories eaten in the UK are from this group.

Group four: Ultra-processed

Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that you wouldn’t add when cooking homemade food. You may not recognise the names of these ingredients as many will be chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives. The most commonly eaten ultra-processed foods in the UK are:

  • Industrialised bread (11 per cent)
  • Pre-packaged meals (7.7 per cent)
  • Breakfast cereals (4.4 per cent)
  • Sausages and other reconstituted meat products (3.8 per cent)

These are closely followed by the expected confectionery (3.5 per cent), biscuits (3.5 per cent), pasties, buns and cakes (3.3 per cent) and industrial chips (2.8 per cent). Soft drinks, fruit drinks and fruit juices make up 2.5 per cent of the average calorie intake. Salty snacks, including Britain’s favourite crisps, make up 2 per cent of our calories, as do sauces, dressings and the Sunday favourite gravy (2.1 per cent).

More surprising to some will be what is included in the 3 per cent of calories that the average person eats from “other ultra-processed foods”. This includes baked beans, tinned soups, meat alternatives, soy and drinks used as dairy milk substitutes.

It can be tricky to identify food that has been ultra-processed because in some cases the same type of food could be minimally processed, processed or ultra-processed, depending on how it’s been made. For example:

  1. Bread made from wheat flour, water, salt and yeast is processed, but add emulsifiers or colourings and it becomes ultra-processed.
  2. Plain oats, corn flakes and shredded wheat are minimally processed, but when the manufacturer adds sugar, flavourings or colourings, they become ultra-processed breakfast cereals.
  3. Plain yoghurt is minimally processed, but add sweeteners, preservatives, stabilisers or colourings and it becomes ultra-processed.

When food has been processed, studies show that the nutrient availability in the small intestine is affected. This is because the plant properties and animal cells have been altered. Issues arise when ultra-processed foods begin replacing unprocessed and minimally processed foods, which contain vital nutrients, in your diet. A whopping 56 per cent of the calories that the average person in the UK eats come from ultra-processed foods.

Yoghurts containing sweeteners, preservatives or stabilisers are classed as ultra-processed.

5 ways to recognise ultra-processed food

  1. A long list of ingredients, especially if it includes things only used in factory-made food, may indicate that a food is ultra-processed. A product containing more than five ingredients is likely to be ultra-processed, according to Professor Maira Bes-Rastrollo.

  2. Unrecognisable ingredients could be additives. Most of them are probably safe, but negative effects have been suggested for a few.

  3. High fat, sugar and salt content is common in ultra-processed food – look out for the traffic light label on foods for levels of these.

  4. ‘Fresh food’ with a long shelf life may indicate the presence of preservatives. Some foods that contain preservatives, such as bacon (which contains salt and nitrates), are not ‘ultra-processed’. However, bacon is not a healthier alternative to salami, which is classed as ‘ultra-processed’ because it has more added ingredients and has undergone a further process in the factory. Bucking the trend is long-life milk, which has been pasteurised at an ultra-high temperature (UHT) and doesn’t contain preservatives and so isn’t classified as ultra-processed, rather minimally processed. Check the label for preservatives such as sodium benzoate, nitrate and sulphite, BHA and BHT.

  5. Aggressive marketing and branding. Ever seen a high-profile marketing campaign for apples and pears? Thought not.