Where to start on processed foods? There have been so many studies relating to processed foods recently and none of them have any good news.
But, before we start, you need to know what ultra-processed foods are. Most food is processed in some way so it’s good to know what it all means.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Here’s your guide to what’s ultra-processed and what’s not. This is the NOVA classification which assigns a group to food products based on how much processing they’ve been through:
Group 1 - Unprocessed or minimally processed foods - Unprocessed foods are fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish, meat and milk.
Minimally processed foods are natural foods that have been altered a little. They may have been dried, crushed, ground, roasted, boiled, frozen, pasteurised or be placed in containers or vacuum packed.
Group 2 - Processed culinary ingredients such as oils, butter, vinegars, sugars and salt.
Group 3 - Processed foods - are usually made using a mix of group one and two ingredients. They include smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread, bacon, salted or sugared nuts, tinned fruit in syrup, beer and wine. The main purpose is to prolong the life or to enhance the flavour of the food in group 1.
Group 4 - Ultra-processed food and drink products 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 (flavour enhancers, colours, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Group 1 foods are a small proportion of, or are even absent from, ultra-processed products.
Two doctors agree with conclusions from other doctors urging the WHO to reconsider its dietary recommendations and prioritise a food based approach in future dietary guidelines. They argue that ultra-processed food consumption results in reduced dietary protein density and increased sugar intake, which in turn is linked with higher rates of obesity and metabolic disorders.
This is a small-scale survey with just 20 people. The ultra-processed and unprocessed meals had the same amounts of calories, sugars, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates, and participants could eat as much or as little as they wanted. But what happened was the people on the ultra-processed diet ate on average 500 more calories everyday than the unprocessed group and gained more weight.
People just ate more of the ultra-processed food!
May 2019 – From the JNCI - Preventable Cancer Burden Associated with Poor Diet in the United States
This study out of the US saw that more than 80 000 new cancer cases are estimated to be associated with suboptimal diet among US adults in 2015.
May 2019 - In the BMJ – Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all-cause mortality
The Spanish study found that people who ate more than 4 servings of ultra-processed foods a day had a 62% higher chance of dying than those who ate less than 2 servings a day. For each additional serving of ultra-processed food, all-cause mortality increased by 18%.
February 2019 – A Study from France found that eating a lot of heavily processed foods is linked to a risk of earlier death.
This was a big study in France with more than 44,000 people over 7 years. They looked at how much of their diet – and calories – was made up of “ultra-processed” foods. They found a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was statistically significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of death by all causes.
This was based on research that shows that ultra-processed foods now make up over half of the UKfamily food purchases, more than any other European country. They then looked at obesity levels in European countries as well and the UK had the highest rate. But is this cause and effect?
From 2015 – Researchers find a link between processed food and autoimmune disease.
I’m linking to an article about this where they explain it better than I can. And to the study as well if you’d like to delve deeper.
So what should you do?
I avoid processed foods as much as possible, mainly because of the taste, there’s something that just puts me off. But I get why more than 50% of the country do, it’s just so easy to pick up a ready meal or a packet of something that you can pop into the microwave after a hard day’s work.
People like Jamie Oliver have been trying to educate us with meals in 15 or 30 minutes. OMG, have you tried any of these? You have to be super prepared and, on the ball, trying to cook all sorts of fancy dishes that quick, will tire you out even more!
I try to shop once a week and think about what I might want to cook in the week and then get the meat, fish or veg I need.
Trust me it doesn’t always work out that way and I end up freezing some of the food, but that’s good as well for weeks when I’ve been tied up and not able to do my normal shop. Bags of frozen fish are also a godsend.
Most supermarkets do deliveries these days and with kids it saves so much time.
The next thing is just to get used to cooking most nights. When my kids were younger, I’d do stir-fry type dishes, pastas or quick curries. There were still nights when they had chicken nuggets and chips, I’m not a saint, but they weren’t the norm and if I’d known then what I know now, they would have been even rarer.
I recently experimented with microwave cooking and did a Bolognese sauce, in the microwave, in 15 minutes, while the pasta was cooking. It came out brilliantly.
Want a night off cooking?
If you really don’t want to cook, then takeaways are the next best thing, choose ones that are freshly prepared in a restaurant.
Ultra-processed foods are not good for your health and may lead to weight gain, unwanted diseases or even early death.
Many are created with ingredients that we can’t even recognise and are definitely not natural, so stay away from them. Check the food you’re buying and if you don’t recognise most of the ingredients, stay away from it.
Cook as much as you can yourself with ingredients that you recognise or get a takeaway 😊
There are loads of great recipes on ChecKYourFood and other websites so make the break from ultra-processed foods and give good old fashioned cooking with real food a try.
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I'm our communications and marketing person, dealing with social media and copywriting. I also work with Matt and Ric overseeing the design and strategic management of the site.
I'm also the author of the Eva the Hungry Amoeba children's book series (only one so far). You can find it on Amazon.
My favourite foods, shepherds pie and smoked haddock!