Not all ultra-processed foods should be avoided, experts warned today.
Biscuits, chocolate and crisps fall into this category, now synonymous with foods that offer little nutritional value and are believed to be fattening.
But so do breakfast cereals, whole wheat bread, and some yogurts.
Leading experts today spoke out against calls for the UK to implement official guidance on avoiding the food group as a whole, saying such a system would be “complicated” and “unworkable”.
For example, they noted that a carrot is unprocessed and healthy.
However, if included in a prepared meal, it would instantly be classified as ultra-processed, putting it in the same category as cakes, pastries and fizzy drinks.
Nutrition experts urged against having a “knee-jerk reaction” and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by labeling a range of foods as unhealthy, when some contain vital nutrients.
The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, divides foods into four groups based on the amount of processing they have gone through. Unprocessed foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and meat. Processed culinary ingredients, which are not typically eaten alone, include oils, butter, sugar, and salt.
The Nova system, developed by scientists in Brazil more than a decade ago, divides foods into four groups based on the amount of processing they have gone through.
Unprocessed foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs, and meat.
Processed culinary ingredients, which are not typically eaten alone, include oils, butter, sugar, and salt.
Processed foods include products made by combining foods from the first two groups, such as ham, cheese, salted nuts, and fruits canned in syrup.
Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients that you won’t find in your kitchen pantry, such as colorings, sweeteners, and preservatives.
WHAT ARE ULTRAPROCESSED FOODS?
Ultra-processed foods are high in fat, added 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, dyes, and preservatives.
Prepared meals, ice cream, sausages, fried chicken and ketchup are some of the most popular examples.
They are different from processed foods, which are processed to make them last longer or enhance their flavor, such as sausages, 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 or no unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and eggs.
Foods are often full of sugars, oils, fats and salt, as well as additives such as preservatives, antioxidants and stabilizers.
Ultra-processed foods are usually ready-to-eat, taste good, and are cheap.
Fountain: Open food data
Currently, UK officials give dietary advice on how much salt, sugar and saturated fat a person should consume, as well as calories and fibre.
But there is a growing call among some scientists for official guidelines on how much processed foods people should eat.
Two studies, published last month, found that those who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods have a higher risk of heart attacks and having dangerously high blood pressure. Campaigners called the findings the strongest evidence yet that eating ultra-processed foods is deadly.
In response, some called for warning labels on ultra-processed foods and official guidance on how much people should eat.
But Professor Janet Cade, head of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Leeds, today criticized the idea of setting guidelines on the intake of ultra-processed foods.
At a press conference today organized by the Science Media Center, he said: “When we look at ultra-processed foods, that definition is variable, complicated and, in fact, unworkable.”
‘There are no two experts who rate certain foods in the same way. Of course yes, much of the ultra-processed food classification is high in fat, sugar and salt.
“But in reality, it’s probably those nutrients more than anything else and we’re still not sure which element of the processing…may have an impact on health.”
Professor Cade added: ‘Some (ultra-processed foods) are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, such as biscuits and cakes.
“But some are foods we would encourage, like whole-grain bread, whole-grain breakfast cereals, yogurts, etc.”
He noted that a carrot is not processed, but becomes processed if it is canned or frozen and becomes ultra-processed if it is “chopped and packed in a previously prepared dish.
«However, the nutritional composition of that carrot will vary very little. And in fact, processing can help preserve nutrients,” Professor Cade said.
Professor Ciaran Forde, professor of sensory science and eating behavior at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said some processing is necessary for certain foods to become edible, such as cereals and grains.
A combination of Chinese and Australian studies suggest that eating ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke by almost 25 percent and the chance of developing high blood pressure by up to 39 percent.
Food experts have established which options can be “part of a healthy diet.” Baked beans, fish fingers and whole wheat bread are sufficient, according to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). Tomato-based pasta sauces, whole grain breakfast cereals and fruit yoghurts are also “healthier processed foods”, the charity said.
He said concerns about Salt, sugar and fat are not new and years of research have sought to examine how to reduce these nutrients in foods.
«Currently, if foods are reformulated and prepared with less salt, sugar, fat or calories, it would be considered that the degree of processing is improved.
“However, there are very strong public health reasons to support reformulation to reduce the presence of these public health-sensitive nutrients in the food supply, so they should not be ruled out due to fears about processing.”
He said calls to avoid ultra-processed foods “risk demonizing foods that are nutritionally beneficial.”
Professor Pete Wilde, leader of the food structure, colloids and digestion group at the Quadram Institute, also criticized the categorization of foods by process level.
He said: ‘Homemade cakes or cheesecakes are not considered processed, but they contain high levels of sugar and fat and possibly salt and quickly digested energy.
‘Are they healthier than a commercial version of that product?’
He also noted that whole wheat bread is considered ultra-processed if bought in the store, even though it is a “rich” and “vital” source of fiber for many.
Gluten-free products fall into the same category, despite being vital for celiacs, Professor Wilde added.
Professor Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the UK Food Standards Agency, said that despite growing concerns among some about ultra-processed foods, people should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
It noted that eating high levels of sugar can lead to obesity, which increases the risk of a number of health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“I think it would be a mistake for people to abandon sweeteners and return to high-sugar diets at a time when we know the obesity epidemic is substantial,” he said.
Ultra-processed foods “definitely have a role to play” in helping people improve their health, Professor May said.
He noted that other ingredients that make foods ultra-processed are there for safety reasons, such as additives that reduce the growth of bacteria or fungi in foods.
They can also reduce food waste by helping foods like bread remain edible for longer, Professor May said.
He added: “That, of course, does not mean that all ultra-processed foods are perfect.”
“The key message here is that we should be guided by science and evidence and not have this knee-jerk reaction that treats everything the same when we clearly know that not everything is the same.”
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS.
• Eat at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried, and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Base meals are based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains.
• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: five servings of fruits and vegetables, two whole-grain crackers, two thick slices of whole-wheat bread, and one large baked potato with skin.
• Eat some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks), choosing options low in fat and sugar.
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including two servings of fish each week, one of which should be fatty).
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume them in small quantities
• Drink six to eight cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should consume less than 6 g of salt and 20 g of saturated fat for women or 30 g for men per day.
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide