May 15th, 2024

What is “ultra-processed food” and how could it affect your health?

If you’ve been following the news recently, you might have come across a phrase that has cropped up again and again: “ultra-processed foods”, or “UPF”.

In early 2024 alone:

  • The Guardian published a report that UPF was linked to 32 poor health outcomes
  • The Times wrote that additives in UPF are now linked to type 2 diabetes
  • The BBC published a guide for parents of children under five trying to navigate the health risks of UPF.

These are just three examples of major news publications talking about UPF. So you might be wondering: “What is UPF, and how could it affect my health?”

Keep reading to discover the key takeaways from modern research into UPF.

Ultra-processed food is defined by its position in the Nova food classification system

To understand the difference between ultra-processed foods and just “processed” foods, it’s important to look at the Nova food classification system.

Globally, this system defines foods into four categories based on the amount of processing the food has gone through.

  • Group 1 describes “non-processed or minimally processed” foods. This could be something like fruit, vegetables, a fresh cut of meat, or eggs.
  • Group 2 is “processed culinary ingredients”, such as flour, milk, butter, salt, or olive oil. The food has gone through a “process” to arrive in its current state, such as milling or churning.
  • Group 3 is “processed foods”, such as freshly baked bread, a smoothie, or a homemade cake.
  • Group 4 is “ultra-processed foods”, or UPF. The difference between ultra-processing and processing is that when a food counts as ultra-processed, it usually contains added ingredients that you might not find in an everyday kitchen – additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, hydrogenated oils, and flavour enhancers.

So, when you read about UPF, it’s important to make the distinction between processing – combining natural ingredients and adding heating or cooling, like baking bread – and ultra-processing, which involves several processing stages and ingredients that have individually been processed several times too.

2 key health findings from recent research into ultra-processed food

At this stage, you might be thinking: “Why does it matter if a food item contains ultra-processed ingredients? Surely, it’s calorie intake that matters the most?”

Recent research indicates that UPF is linked to poor health outcomes, and not only because these foods are typically high in salt, fat, and sugar – although high calorie density definitely plays its part.

Here are two discoveries scientists have made about UPF.

1. The soft texture of UPF can lead to overconsumption

Several pieces of research indicate that one of the reasons UPF is linked to poor health outcomes, such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, is because it is soft.

Ultra-processing often changes the molecular structure of the foods we eat, making it easier to chew, and in turn, easier to overeat.

For example, if you ate a steak, you’d have to do a lot of chewing before you finished your plate. But chicken nuggets, while still a source of meat and protein, are ultra-processed to the point where your teeth don’t have to do much work.

According to many studies, the act of chewing gives our brains the time to realise when we are satiated. Without having to chew your food properly, you might not realise you’re full, and keep eating past satiety.

2. Many food companies market UPF products as “health foods”

Chris van Tulleken is a doctor, microbiologist, and author of Ultra-Processed People, a scientifically backed book that delves into the nitty gritty of the UPF world.

In his book, van Tulleken covers important societal aspects that surround UPF. He claims that global food poverty, a lack of education, and misleading marketing tactics are three key reasons why UPF is often consumed in greater quantities than fresh food.

Indeed, some companies market “diet” or “weight loss” versions of full-fat foods and drinks, in order to lead consumers to believe that they are healthier alternatives. And while these products might have less sugar and fat in them than the original version, the additives, sweeteners, and preservatives used to replace these ingredients could be equally (or more) unhealthy.

So, van Tulleken – perhaps the world’s leading researcher into UPF – encourages consumers to look beyond the marketing and stick to recognisable food sources, ones that haven’t been processed several times before they reach us.

This doesn’t mean living on a diet of raw fish and vegetables, but it may mean taking the time to read about the health outcomes of UPF and making decisions based on what you learn.

Taking a balanced approach to UPF means that you could take better care of your health without becoming too worried about every single thing you eat.

Please note

This article is for general information only and does not constitute advice. To understand the best course of action for your health, contact a medical professional.

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