Ultra processed foods explained

This week the news has been full of reports that ultra processed foods (UPF) increase the risk of cancer. But what does that really mean?

Hundreds of articles get published relating to food and health, foods that increase the risk of cancer and foods that prevent or reduce the risk of cancer. You’ll find the same if you Google weight loss, diabetes, allergies, healthy skin etc.; a bad diet is a bad diet and affects multiple aspects of your health.

In isolation each article can leave you with more questions than answers. Read a whole bunch and then dig deeper into the research behind the news headlines and you’ll find repeated themes, put those themes together and you’ll find the real headline:


Being healthy is not simply a case of avoiding foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat and oils, additional risks are caused by the use of chemicals and multi stage processing. Ultra processed foods are made from ingredients and using methods that you wouldn’t typically find in a home kitchen or restaurants that cook real food (rather than prepared, packaged foods).

UPFs is a double whammy. The higher the amount of ultra processed foods you eat the lower the amount of healthy whole foods you eat that can help prevent disease and cancers.

With the emergance of the global industrial food system in the 80s. Wealthy countries without strong food heritage, USA, Canada, UK, and Australia became dominated by packaged, ready-to-consume products. Many other countries are now suffering the same fate, replacing traditional home cooked freshly prepared dishes based on minimally processed foods with low quality, unhealthy packaged foods. Rates of obesity, cancers and diabetes have correspondingly risen as rapidly.

Ultra processed food are highly convenient (ready-to-eat), highly palatible, highly profitable, due to low cost ingredients, and therefore of great importance to the food industry. They are big business, with aggressive marketing to both children and adults.  Often branded products owned by large corporations. It is estimated that 50% of all calories consumed in the UK and 60% in the USA from now from ultra processed foods. Next time you shop look how much whole foods you have versus pre-prepared packed foods.

The recently published findings of a 7 year study conducted by the French researchers was based on the NOVA classification system. The NOVA systems uses four definitions to define food processing groups:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods:
    • whole natural foods of minimally processed foods only altered by processes such as removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing, placing in containers, vacuum packaging, or non- alcoholic fermentation. None of these processes adds substances such as salt, sugar, oils or fats to the original food.
    • plants (veg, grains, seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water
  2. Processed culinary ingredients
    • these are substances obtained directly from group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and spray drying
    • examples are salt, cane sugar, honey, butter, oils crushed from olives or seeds, lard,
    • products used in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook group 1 foods e.g. hand-made dishes, soups and broths, breads, preserves, salads, drinks and desserts.
  3. Processed foods
    • increase the durability of group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities
    • canned or bottled vegetables, fruits and legumes; salted or sugared nuts and seeds; salted, cured, or smoked meats; canned fish; fruits in syrup; cheeses and unpackaged freshly made breads
  4. Ultra-processed food and drink products
    • look out for long lists of ingredients 5+ especially where the list starts to look like a chemistry lesson
    • ingredients you don’t recognise as food, things you would not cook with at home, e.g. maltodextrin, soy protein, palm oil, high fructose corn syrup…
    • sugars, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives
    • whole foods from Group 1 are minimal or absent
    • several industrial processes with no domestic equivalents are used in the manufacture of ultra-processed products, such as extrusion and moulding, and pre-processing for frying
    • examples of typical ultra-processed products are: fizzy drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; ice-cream, chocolate, confectionary; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and spreads; biscuits, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; ‘energy’ drinks; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; cocoa drinks; meat and chicken extracts and ‘instant’ sauces; infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products; ‘health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as powdered or ‘fortified’ meal and dish substitutes; and many ready to heat products including pre-prepared pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products, and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts…And remember your dogs and cats – canned and dry pet foods

Example ingredients lists of ultra processed foods (note even foods you might think are healthy and marketed as healthy can also be ultra processed):

  1. Pringles originalDehydrated Potatoes, Vegetable Oils (Sunflower, Corn), Rice Flour, Wheat Starch, Corn Flour, Emulsifier (E471), Maltodextrin, Salt, Yeast Extract, Yeast Powder, Colour (Annatto)
  2. Tesco Healthy Living 5 Apple & Strawberry Cereal Bars – Rice And Whole Wheat Flakes (29%), Fibre (Polydextrose), Oat Flakes, Yogurt Flavoured Drizzle (8%), Crispy Cereals, Stabiliser (Sorbitol), Apple And Strawberry Fruit Pieces (5%), Glucose Syrup, Sunflower Oil, Strawberry Freeze dried pieces (1%), Flavouring, Emulsifier (SoyaLecithins), Antioxidant (Tocopherol-Rich Extract), Rice And Whole Wheat Flakes contains: Rice, Wholewheat, Sugar, Wheat Gluten, WheatFlour, Dried Skimmed Milk, Barley Malt Extract, Salt, Wheatgerm, Yogurt Flavoured Drizzle contains: Sugar, Palm Kernel Oil, Yogurt Powder (Milk), Milk Sugar, Emulsifier (Soya Lecithins), Crispy Cereals contains: Wheat Flour, Rice Flour, Dextrose, Sugar, Salt, Apple And Strawberry Fruit Pieces contains: Apple, Dextrose, Humectant (Glycerol), Concentrated Strawberry Juice, Maize Starch, Elderberry Juice Extract, Acidity Regulator (Malic Acid), Flavouring, Preservative (Sulphur Dioxide), Glucose Syrup contains: Glucose Syrup, Stabiliser (Sorbitol)
  3. Muller corner red cherry – Yogurt (Milk), Cherries (11%), Water, Sugar, Stabilisers: Pectins, Guar Gum, Flavourings, Acidity Regulator: Citric Acid
  4. Tesco white medium bread – Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin, Thiamin), Water, Yeast, Salt, Rapeseed Oil, Spirit Vinegar, Emulsifiers (Mono- and Di-Acetyl Tartaric Acid Esters of Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Sodium Stearoyl-2-Lactylate, Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids), Soya Flour, Preservative (Calcium Propionate), Palm Oil, Flour Treatment Agent (Ascorbic Acid)
  5. Pot noodle – Noodles: Noodles (57%) [Wheat Flour, Palm Fat, Salt, Firming Agents (Potassium Carbonate, Sodium Carbonate)], Sauce and Vegetables: Water, Maltodextrin, Vegetables (3.6%) [Carrots, Peas (1%), Onion Powder], Wheat Flour, Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Curry Powder, Acidity Regulator (Sodium Diacetate), Palm Fat, Flavour Enhancer (Monosodium Glutamate), Salt, Yeast Extract, Potassium Chloride, Garlic, CheesePowder, Flavourings, Colour (Curcumin), Sachet: Mango Chutney Sauce (1.3%) [Mango Puree (88%) (Mango, Sugar, Salt, Acid (Acetic Acid), Spices] Water, Spirit Vinegar, Modified Corn Starch, Chilli Powder]
  6. Dairylea cheese spreadSkimmed Milk (Water, Skimmed Milk Powder), Cheese, Skimmed Milk Powder, Milk Fat, Stabilisers (Citric Acid, Sodium Carbonate), Inulin, Whey Powder (from Milk), Calcium Phosphate
  7. Heinz weighwatchers chicken hotpot – Water, Fried Potatoes (23% contain Potatoes, Sunflower Oil, Dextrose), Cooked Chicken (16%, Chicken Breast, Water, Salt, Stabilisers – Di-Tri- and Polyphosphates), Mushrooms, Carrots, Peas, Skimmed Milk Powder, Onions, Modified Maize Starch, Whipping Cream (1%, contains Milk), Flavourings (Flavouring, Salt, Maltodextrin, Chicken Fat, Chicken, Celery, Celeriac), Chicken Stock (Chicken, Water, Salt, Maltodextrin, Chicken Fat, Yeast Extract), Onion Powder, Parsley, Salt, Mustard Powder, Sage, Thyme
  8. Quorn meat free mince Mycoprotein™ (93%), Rehydrated Free Range Egg White, Natural Caramelised Sugar, Firming Agents: Calcium Chloride, Calcium Acetate, Gluten Free Barley Malt Extract
  9. Cadbury creme eggSugar, Milk, Glucose Syrup, Cocoa Butter, Invert Sugar Syrup, Dried Whey (from Milk), Cocoa Mass, Vegetable Fats (Palm, Shea), Emulsifier (E442), Dried Egg White, Flavourings, Colour (Paprika Extract), Milk Chocolate: Milk Solids 14% minimum, Contains Vegetable Fats in addition to Cocoa Butter

Parting thoughts;

  • the diet of an ethical omnivore focuses of whole foods, veg, fruit, pulses etc and adding naturally raised meat fish and dairy (non intensive farming)
  • cook and prepare dishes using as many whole ingredients as you can e.g. make pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes rather than a jar of sauce.
  • remember you don’t have to be perfect, every little change you make counts
  • apply common sense, if it doesn’t resemble a natural food product, is heavily marketed and has a long ingredients list put it back
  • recognise UPF as a treat rather than part of your main diet
  • don’t get down, this doesn’t mean you have to give us tasty foods, it means you have to adjust to enjoy ‘proper’ tasty food 🙂
  • don’t be fooled into eating ultra processed foods as part of your staple diet, this includes meat replacement products marketed to vegetarians and vegans.
  • getting your calories from ultra processed foods which is bad for your health means it is instead of eating whole foods that have a positive effect on your health it is a double whammy.

The ethical omnivore.





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