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Ultra-processed foods are harming our health – here’s what to eat instead

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What alternatives are there to ultra-processed foods?

Preparing meals and snacks from scratch with unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients is ideal, but for most of us this simply isn’t possible all the time. The good news is there are non-UPF versions of many UPFs – these products are processed rather than ultra-processed. 

Many organic versions of common UPFs, such as tins of baked beans and non-dairy milk alternatives, are not ultra-processed.  For example, most ready-meal lasagne is an UPF but Tesco and Marks & Spencer both sell versions that are processed but not ultra-processed, and both score B  for “good nutritional quality”.  

Dr van Tulleken stresses he’s not encouraging anyone to eat ready meals every night just because they’re not ultra-processed.  “There are lots of non-UPF ready meals that are great and convenient, but the evidence shows that if you can possibly cook a lasagne at home, it will be better for you than even the non-UPF convenience meal.”

Dr van Tulleken also recommends Open Food Facts, a free app and online database that makes it easy to differentiate processed from UPF products. UPF is identified as Nova group 4, while processed food is Nova group 3. The database also indicates how nutritious a product is according to the Nutri Score system, a five-point scale that rates food letters from A to E, indicating highest to lowest nutritional quality, and colours from green to red (best to worst).

Why are ultra-processed foods bad for you? 

The new Australian study is the latest of many that have linked UPFs with a range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Other recent studies from Australia and China suggested UPF can significantly raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. 

Australian research published last year followed more than 10,000 women for 15 years and found those who consumed the most UPF were 39 per cent more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who consumed the least. High blood pressure is linked to heart disease, disease of the arteries and dementia.

The Chinese research involved more than 325,000 men and women and linked high UPF consumption with a 24 per cent higher chance of problems like heart attack, stroke and angina.  

There is also evidence linking UPF to obesity. It’s thought the soft/creamy texture and intense flavour of many UPFs makes them “hyper palatable”. This confuses the signals between the gut and the brain; we can’t tell when we’re full , so we eat more.

Do ultra-processed foods cause cancer? 

In 2023, the results of a large study by Imperial College London were published in The Lancet medical journal. 

The research, the largest of its kind, involved almost 200,000 UK adults and linked higher consumption of UPF to increased risk of cancer, specifically ovarian and brain cancers.

It’s not clear why UPF seems to be causing us harm. Research suggests it’s not just the high levels of sugar, fat and salt found in UPFs that are the problem, or the additives on their own. “The individual ingredients of UPF may each be harmful, but it is in combination that they do the most harm,” Dr van Tulleken says. The effect of individual molecules on our metabolism is complex, so scientists are still trying to work out exactly how this works.

Some scientists are cautious about studies that suggest UPFs are at the root of disease. They argue most of the research is observational and therefore doesn’t prove that UPF actually causes health problems.  Researchers can adjust results to take into account some but not all of the many lifestyle factors that might influence the results, such as smoking, exercise, sleep and stress.  

But Dr Courtney Scott, a dietician with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission believes there’s now sufficient evidence to ring alarm bells. “Every study about UPF, as far as I know, has shown a negative impact on health,” she says. “If you combine the consistency of that evidence with what we know about the health benefits of minimally processed food, it means it’s time to start thinking about how we can reduce UPFs in our shops and also in our shopping baskets.”

Which ultra-processed foods should I avoid?

It’s impossible to rank UPFs precisely from least worst to worst for your health – there are too many factors involved.

Some nutritionists suggest that if you do buy UPF, check the label and choose one low in sugar, fat and salt. Try to add lots of good stuff to your plate – for example eat lots of leafy greens with a UPF pizza. Or if you have a UPF meal for dinner, try to eat minimally processed food for the rest of the day.

Similarly, if you have a bacon sandwich for breakfast, opt for a UPF-free dinner with plenty of vegetables.

Processed meat – any that’s been preserved or changed including bacon – is associated with a higher risk of bowel cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, just 25g a day (that’s one measly rasher) raises your risk. Eating large quantities of red meat has been associated with it too. 

When it comes to bacon, the blame is laid with chemicals added in the processing: nitrates and nitrites.

“It’s about doing what you can where you can because we all have to navigate everyday life,” Dr Scott says. “Focus wherever possible on minimally processed food. And I know this is impossible for a lot of people, but wherever possible, cooking those foods yourself so you know exactly what’s gone into them.”

Dr Scott and Dr van Tulleken believe it shouldn’t be up to individual consumers to navigate UPFs on their own. Our supermarkets and high streets are overflowing with UPFs made by food manufacturers who invest significant amounts of money into trying to convince us to buy their products.

“I would like there to be a public health campaign warning people about the research on UPFs, which is very robust, “ Dr van Tulleken says. “UPFs should eventually have warning labels, and our national nutrition guidance should advise people to cut down.”

He isn’t calling for everyone to give up UPF completely. “My interest is in people having more choice and freedom, not telling people what to eat,” he says. “But if 60 per cent of your calories are coming from UPFs, the evidence shows that those products are troubling and are not made with your health in mind.”

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