Ultra-processed foods – Are they really that bad for us?

At Be Strong we like to make sure we stay up-to-date with all the recent developments in the food and nutrition world, as well as knowing the latest on keeping fit. Lately there has been a lot of noise about ultra-processed foods or UPF’s as they are also known – and particularly how bad they are for our health.

What is most concerning for us at Be Strong is the theory that ultra-processed foods, which can be high in sugar, salt and fat (and therefore calories) but can also be low calorie alternatives, contain chemicals that can impact on our brains, causing us to crave these foods more, which is less than ideal for our waistlines. So it’s time to look into these further so that we can make educated decisions about what we are fuelling our bodies with.

This article will explain what ultra-processed foods are and what the potential implications of their consumption are for us.


What are ultra-processed foods?

The NOVA Food Classification system, was designed by the Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. NOVA helps people “group foods according to the extent and purpose of the processing they undergo.

NOVA classifies food on a scale of 1-4, as to how processed they are:
Group 1 – Unprocessed or minimally processed foods – natural foods which have only been subject to cleaning, trimming and removing inedible parts.   Foods which are pasteurised or fermented are included here. Examples are meat, fish, vegetables and grains, veg or fruit juices with no added sugar or other substances, eggs, milk, yogurt with no added sugar or other substances.
Group 2 – Processed culinary ingredients – This group is also known as oils, fats, salt and sugar. They are products extracted from natural foods, such as seeds, nuts, plants, honeycomb or cane and used in homes and restaurants to season and cook food creating varied dishes.
Group 3 – Processed foods – These foods are those manufactured by the food industry, combining group 1 and group 2 foods together.  They are recognised as the original versions of foods, and are often consumed as a side dish or a part of a meal.  Most have two or three ingredients. Examples would be canned tuna, bacon, salted or sugared nuts, cheese, beer, wine and cider.
Group 4 – Ultra-processed food and drink products – These foods (and drinks) are industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavor enhancers, colours, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable).
Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, moulding and pre-processing by frying.  Group 1 unprocessed foods are a only a very small proportion of, or may even absent from, ultra-processed products.
Examples could include: sweet, fatty, salty or savoury packaged snacks, biscuits, ice cream or frozen desserts, pastries and cakes, canned, dehydrated or packaged soups, noodles, sauces; packaged breads, breakfast cereals, carbonated soft drinks and flavoured sweetened milk drinks, pre-prepared pizza and pasta dishes; pre-prepared meat and poultry products and distilled alcoholic beverages such as whisky, rum, gin and vodka.

Why are ultra-processed foods so bad for us and our bodies?

Current research shows that 20% of the UK population consumes ultra-processed food and drink products, as 80% of their diet. Sounds shocking doesn’t it, but if we are honestly think about our weekly shop, I definitely include some of these products in there.  I can see that it would probably be very easy to get over the 50% mark. When I think about what’s in my cupboards and fridge – Bread, breakfast cereals, flavoured yogurts, crisps and biscuits, the occasional ready made pizzas, along with some pre-prepared chicken or fish products, obviously amongst lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and fresh meat – I think we could quite easily be consuming lots of these products without realising it- even perhaps thinking we are being healthy – especially if we are just focusing on calorie intake.

But why are they so bad for us? If the calories fit they are ok, surely? Lots of foods contain additives right?   And they wouldn’t be used, if they weren’t safe for us, would they?

Well, having worked for almost 20 years in the food industry I totally concur with those arguments – however, my thoughts are, when they were writing the regulations on food additives, were the scientists and legislators of the belief that these chemicals would be in 80% of the food that we consume? Perhaps not? Sure, they know they are safe to be used at a certain level in particular foods, but when does that become too much, how safe are they when our diet is saturated with ultra-processed products?  This is something that we don’t know the answer to yet, but it is definitely a question worth further research.

Classes of additives found only in ultra-processed products include those used to imitate or enhance the sensory qualities of foods or to disguise unpalatable aspects of the final product. These additives include dyes, colours, colour stabilizers; flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners; and processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants.  Things you will all have seen on food labels, and wondered what on earth they do!

Further, a complex sequence of processes is used to combine all the ingredients and additives to create the final product (hence ‘ultra-processed’). The processes include several with no ‘home kitchen’ equivalents, such as hydrogenation and hydrolysation, extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying.

The overall purpose of ultra-processing is to create attractively branded and appealing, convenient, durable, ready to consume products, using low-cost ingredients that are hyper-palatable and highly profitable.. Ultra-processed food products are usually packaged attractively and marketed intensively, to make them ultra-appealing to consumers, so that they will be purchased in bulk over and over again, to gain maximum profit margins.

So the big question is what do they to us, that is really so bad… well read on, because the emerging science is starting to reveal that these products are potentially highly addictive.

Research shows that foods high in salt, fat and sugar stimulate a greater sense of reward in the brain – described by Dr Douglas Lisle as a ‘dietary pleasure trap’ releasing dopamine, allowing us to feel pleasure.

Dr Douglas goes on to say that repeated consumption of these highly rewarding foods, may make it more difficult to resist the urge to eat them, and worryingly, the more you eat them, the less dopamine is released, so you need to eat more to get the same effect.  This sounds worryingly like addiction to me!

A study has shown that ultra-processed foods cause an increased consumption of energy. Study participants were presented with a diet matched in energy, macronutrients, sugar, salt and fibre.  Half were given ultra-processed foods, and half were given meals made with unprocessed ingredients. The participants were told to eat as much or as little as they liked of the food they were presented with. Those who were given the ultra-processed foods consumed over 500 calories a day extra, compared to those who were consuming non-processed foods.  And those on the ultra-processed diet also experienced weight gain, during the period of the trial, correlating with the increased calorie consumption – no surprise there!

Hormone levels were also affected, with those on the ultra-processed diet experiencing an increase in the hunger hormone, grehlin, and a decrease in the hormone leptin, that tells us when we are full. The study also reported that those on the ultra processed diet consumed the food a lot quicker than those on the non-processed diet, potentially leading to overconsumption, and probably because the food is so processed it is very easy to chew and swallow.  There is also very little fibre in UPF’s.  Fibre fills our tummies making us feel full, so when a food is low in fibre, we are able to eat more of it, because our tummy isn’t as full.

In another study, this time for TV, the BBC’s Dr Chris Van Tulleken conducted a 4-week experiment where he consumed ultra-processed foods for 80% of his diet (the same ratio as one-fifth of the population). Before, during and after the experiment, his brain was scanned to reveal the connections that were being made.  The scans showed a development in the connections between the areas responsible for automatic, repetitive behaviour and the areas responsible for reward. These connections weren’t there previously, and took more than 6 weeks for them to diminish once he had returned to his regular, less processed diet.  He explained that these connections were similar to the connections made when someone uses addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs. He also found that his hunger hormone increased by 30% during his 4-week experiment.  After the experiment he reported more frequent food cravings, poor sleep, heart burn, unhappy feelings, anxiety, sluggishness, and a low libido. He also had piles from constipation.  He gained 7kg and moved from a healthy weight to overweight in just 4 weeks.

And then there’s the effect on young people.  Marketing of such ultra-processed products can be very aggressively targeted towards children and teenagers.We all know that kids can be fussy, and would love to live on a diet of chicken nuggets, oven chips and pizza!! Well maybe now we are starting to understand why….  Research suggests that young people are more vulnerable to the effects of ‘rewarding food’.  Humans don’t fully learn how to risk assess until they are about 25, and dopamine release in adolescents is more abundant, therefore the brain rapidly learns about rewards.  Therefore if an adolescents diet is saturated with ultra processed foods, those addictive connections are being reinforced over and over, every time they consume it.

The great fibre provider

Going back to fibre –  as we know fibre is great for keeping our digestive systems functioning correctly and preventing many disease risks including cancer.  Issues with a lack of fibre in the diet have also been linked to issues with Covid. The ‘Zoe covid-19 research study’ found that people who ate large amounts of plant based food (and that doesn’t mean vegans, it just means people who eat lots of fruit and vegetables, pulses etc), were 10% less likely to catch Covid, and 40% less likely to require hospitalisation and treatment if they did catch it.

But why? Well apparently the answer lies deep in our gut, in what is called our microbiome. This is a pool of good bacteria hanging around in our gut, doing lots of important things like helping to reduce inflammation – something which is crucial for the avoidance of all disease, but also Covid-19. This pool of friendly and helpful bacteria need lots of fruit and vegetables, pulses and wholegrains to pass through our gut to allow them to grow and proliferate. When we eat less of these foods, the bacteria die off naturally, and stop doing their job to prevent us becoming ill.

How to spot an ultra-processed food and should we avoid them?

Now we know that complete avoidance of ultra-processed foods is a little bit ‘pie in the sky’. Lives are busy, we sometimes need to eat for convenience, and for you, it might be just one step too far to try and navigate as well as everything else that you are trying to do.  But if you are interested in reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods you and your family consume, and going back to nature a little bit more, there are ways you can do it.

The NOVA website contains a barcode search function for you to check what category your chosen product is in, either 1-4. They will tell you whether the food you are interested in is unprocessed, or ultra-processed or anything in between.

That may seem like an arduous task during the weekly shop, so a simpler check is to look at the label. You are already checking labels for your calories, so take your gaze towards the ingredients and see what you can elicit from that.

If I was choosing to avoid UPF’s I would be looking for products that had the shortest ingredients lists, and on those ingredients lists, if there are lots of ingredients that I can’t pronounce, or I don’t recognise them as ‘real food’, then I might consider leaving it on the shelf. This is the simplest way to check if pre-packaged food is a UPF.

And finally, the simplest and most straight forward way to reduce the amount of UPF’s is to make things from scratch, using fresh ingredients, so that you are the processor creating the food you eat, and you know exactly what has gone into it.

This week!

This isn’t a plea for you to start avoiding all UPF’s, not in the slightest! We all lead different lives, with different amounts of time available, we do what we do to get by, to feed ourselves and our families – and there is absolutely no judgement from us on that.  But – it is a plea for you to consider whether your consumption of these foods, could be impacting on your cravings and associations with particular foods. Is it something that you could aim to improve upon?  Hopefully with the added benefits of reduced food cravings and improved health.

UPF’s is a whole emerging field of research with potential impacts on not just global nutrition, but the political and environmental landscape too.  Whatever you decide, we would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, in the comments section below.

10 replies on “Ultra-processed foods – Are they really that bad for us?”

This is really interesting for me and a real eye opener, for someone who has been vegetarian and leaning even further towards vegan and plant based even more I’m happy you have given me some information to work on. Thanks Rachel for a really well researched and informative piece.

This is really interesting for me and a real eye opener, for someone who has been vegetarian and leaning even further towards vegan and plant based even more I’m happy you have given me some information to work on. Thanks Rachel for a really well researched and informative piece

I find this really interesting, when you look into it a lot of the “skinny” type alternatives are lower in calories but the sugar & additives are much higher than the standard alternative. More false economy than healthier substitute.

Gosh how complicated can it be ? It just shows how difficult finding the foods can be . Had to read the information several times to take it in …. Difficult

What an interesting and thought provoking article. I’ve been recently thinking about the ‘quality’ of calories and this very much makes me want to have more unprocessed foods in my diet.

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