They are thought to make us fat, give us type 2 diabetes, and even increase our risk of cancer.
But ultra-processed foods shouldn’t all be treated with the same brush, a leading nutritionist said.
Anything edible made with colors, sweeteners, and preservatives automatically falls into this category, according to Nova’s food classification system.
It was created by Brazilian scientist Carlos Monteiro in 2009 as a way to study group foods in relation to the processes they undergo. Since then, it has been used by hundreds of scientists to examine the link between eating habits and disease.
But Professor Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition expert at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that the label on ultra-processed foods is vague, describing “perfectly good” foods as “unhealthy”.
Nutritionists divide foods into three groups based on the amount of processing they have gone through. Minimally processed foods, like apples, are often exactly as they appear in nature. Processed foods, such as applesauce, have gone through at least one level of processing that has changed their original form. By contrast, ultra-processed foods, like apple jelly babies, have gone through multiple levels of processing and are typically packed with extra fats, colors, and preservatives.
Food processing covers any changes made to raw ingredients, such as to make them safer or more convenient to eat or taste better.
There are four groups of foods processed under the Nova system.
Raw includes fruits, vegetables, and seeds, while minimally processed covers foods that have been dried, roasted, or frozen but have no added ingredients, which includes frozen fish.
There are also processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butters, and vinegars.
Processed items are those made from a mixture of these foods and can include smoked and cured meats, cheeses, and fresh bread.
The final group, the ultra-processed, are made from ingredients not found in a typical kitchen, such as dyes, sweeteners, and preservatives.
Dozens of studies have warned about the risk of eating too much ultra-processed foods, including cookies, cakes, chips, ready meals, sausages, chips, and soft drinks.
WHAT ARE ULTRAPROCESSED FOODS?
Ultra-processed foods are high in added fat, sugar, and salt, low in protein and fiber, and contain artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives.
The term covers foods that contain ingredients that a person would not add when cooking at home, such as chemicals, colorings, and preservatives.
Ready meals, ice cream, sausages, fried chicken, and ketchup are some of the most beloved examples.
They are different from processed foods, which are processed to last longer or improve their flavor, such as cold cuts, cheese, and fresh bread.
Ultra-processed foods, such as sausages, cereals, cookies, and soft drinks, are formulations made mostly or entirely from food-derived substances and additives.
They contain little to no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, and eggs.
Food is often loaded with sugars, oils, fats, and salt, as well as additives like preservatives, antioxidants, and stabilizers.
Ultra-processed foods are often presented as ready-to-eat, taste good, and are cheap.
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Research has suggested that those who eat the most ultra-processed foods are up to a third more likely to die of cancer, 80 percent more likely to be depressed, and nearly 30 percent more likely to develop dementia.
Professor Kuhnle told MailOnline that the definition of ultra-processed foods is “incredibly vague” and “needs a lot of explanation” to be understood and implemented.
He said: ‘One concern with all sorts of food-related messages declaring some foods ‘bad’ is the impact it has on people with eating disorders.
“But the other problem, especially now with the cost of living crisis, is that people avoid perfectly good and affordable food because they think it’s ‘unhealthy’.
“We’ve been seeing the same problem with frozen vegetables: even though they’re not ultra-processed, they’re considered ‘less healthy’ for some reason.”
Fish fingers are a freezer staple in most homes.
While not the healthiest way to eat fish, a three-finger serving is just 160 calories and low in saturated fat and sugar.
They also count as one of the two recommended servings of fish people eat per week, which health chiefs say supports heart health.
However, they are classified as ultra-processed foods, according to a 2015 Cambridge University study, which ranked foods in the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey based on their level of processing.
Professor Kuhnle said: “Production methods can vary, but most in the UK are just fish and breadcrumbs.
“Most people don’t eat enough fish, so they’re a great way to increase your fish intake.
“Many of them also appear to come from sustainable sources.”
A loaf is found in most people’s weekly stores.
But although they can come in varieties with seeds and whole grains, most of those sold in a supermarket (industrialized bread) are considered ultra-processed food.
This is because it includes preservatives to increase its shelf life, instead of the traditional four ingredients needed to make bread: flour, salt, water, and yeast.
Professor Kuhnle said: ‘There is no reason to assume that supermarket bread is unhealthy.
A loaf is found in most people’s weekly stores. But although they can come in varieties with seeds and whole grains, most of those sold in a supermarket (industrialized bread) are considered ultra-processed food.
‘There is a wide range of breads, some of which, for example whole grains, are an important source of fibre.’
He added: “The same bread produced in a bakery would be processed, but when bought as packaged bread in a supermarket, it would be ultra-processed.”
Baked beans are high in fiber and low in fat and sugar.
Half a can made by Heinz, which has 168 calories, also contains 50% more protein than a medium egg (10g vs. 6g).
However, it contains 1.3 g of salt, one fifth of the recommended daily total for an adult.
The product is classified as an ultra-processed food because it contains modified cornmeal, an additive that is used as a stabilizer or thickening agent.
But Professor Kuhnle said they shouldn’t be discounted because of this, as “they are a source of fiber and can contribute one to your five a day.”
Breakfast cereals are one of the most widely consumed ultra-processed foods in the UK, according to a 2018 study.
While the product may come in high-sugar and chocolate options, there are also high-fiber shredded wheat and grain-packed muesli.
Breakfast cereals are one of the most widely consumed ultra-processed foods in the UK, according to a 2018 study
Professor Kuhnle said not everything should be clouded with the ultra-processed label.
He said: ‘It depends a lot on the type of cereal; some are high fiber, low sugar.’
While not a typical purchase for most, many new parents use baby formula as a substitute for breast milk.
Formula is typically made from cow’s milk and two types of protein: whey and casein.
Professor Kuhnle said: ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the concept of ‘ultra-processing’ here and put it in the same category as gin, ice cream and chocolate.
It is essentially a food for medicinal purposes.
‘There are many arguments in favor of breastfeeding, of course, but I don’t think scaremongering about the ‘UPF’ status of infant formula should be one of them.’
Health chiefs say breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed a baby, protecting against infection and disease, as well as obesity and cardiovascular disease in the future.