They look appealing and they taste great, but ultra processed foods have shown to have a significant negative impact on our health.
The incidence of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease is climbing at an alarming rate. Compelling research has linked the consumption of ultra processed foods with the growing healthcare problem1.
Learning how to recognise ultra processed food is an important first step in avoiding them. Consumers need to be aware of what it is they are putting in their bodies. It is becoming clear foods are not simply just the sum of their nutrients2. They also contain ingredients our grandmothers wouldn’t recognise.
In a world where we are exposed to harmful substances at every turn – in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, and in our homes – it is now crucial to limit our risk wherever we can. Making healthier food choices is something within our control.
What are ultra processed foods?
Not all processed food is bad. All of the food we eat has been processed in some way.
Food is processed:2:
- To improve food safety
- To improve the taste
- To make food preparation easier
- To extend the shelf life
- To make the food more digestible
Unless you are harvesting your food yourself and cooking it straight away, you are buying processed food in some way or another. Even the act of cleaning fresh produce and gutting fish is a form of processing3.
NOVA is a system used to rate food according to how much processing it has undergone.
Foods are classified into four groups4:
- Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: The edible parts of plants, animals, fungi, algae and water
- Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients: Salt, oil, sugar or starch that are derived directly from foods in group 1
- Group 3: Processed foods: Freshly baked bread, cured meats, cheese and canned vegetables, fruit and legumes
- Group 4: Ultra processed foods and drinks: Carbonated drinks, sweet and savoury packaged snacks, margarine, breakfast cereals, fruit yogurts and chicken nuggets
The authors of a scientific paper published in Public Health Nutrition in February 2019 examined the definition of ultra processed foods and how to identify them5:
“Processes and ingredients used for the manufacture of ultra processed foods are designed to create highly profitable products (low-cost ingredients, long shelf-life, branded products) which are liable to displace all other NOVA food groups. Their convenience (imperishable, ready-to-consume), hyper-palatability, branding and ownership by transnational corporations, and aggressive marketing give ultra-processed foods enormous market advantages over all other NOVA food groups.”
Research on ultra processed foods indicates they are energy-dense food products, high in refined sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, and contain low levels of dietary fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals. They cause our blood sugar levels to spike and don’t satisfy our hunger.
How to identify ultra processed foods
Foods that fall into NOVA Group 4 are the foods to be wary of. Often identifiable by a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. Sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers and preservatives make up a large portion of what goes into manufacturing both processed and ultra processed food.
Ultra processed foods have even longer ingredient lists. Some of them are extracted from foods such as casein, whey and lactose from milk, or gluten from wheat. Other foods are processed to become ingredients in ultra processed foods like hydrogenated vegetable oils, hydrolysed protein, soy protein isolate and high fructose corn syrup. And then you have the chemical additives including dyes, stabilisers, flavourants, non-nutritive sweeteners, bulking agents and humectants. The lists are long.
You don’t have to know all of the ingredients used in ultra processed foods in order to be able to identify them. However, it is important to read food labels on packaged foods in order to make an informed decision about whether or not you really want to consume the ingredients.
Food manufacturers don’t need to tell you which methods were used to manufacture your food, but they do need to tell you what is in it. If you have a general idea of the type of ingredients used in ultra processed foods it will be easier to identify them.
Here are some things to look out for5:
- Ingredients you don’t recognise
- Foods rarely or never used in kitchens
- Additives such as flavours, flavour enhancers, colourants, emulsifiers, emulsifying agents, non-nutritive sweeteners, thickeners, and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents
The effect of ultra processed foods on our health
A study published in Cell Metabolism in July 2019 examined the effect of diets based on ultra processed foods on calorie intake and weight gain6. They recruited twenty people whose weight was stable and they were admitted to the NIH Clinical Centre for the duration of the trial. The participants were divided into two groups and given either an ultra processed diet or an unprocessed diet for two weeks. After the first two weeks, the diets were swapped so those who initially had been given an ultra processed diet were eating an unprocessed diet and vice versa. They were allowed to eat as much or as little as they liked.
The study showed that eating an ultra processed diet resulted in a higher intake of calories, carbohydrates and fat. They also showed weight gain correlated to the higher energy intake of the ultra processed food with participants gaining roughly 1kg during the ultra processed diet phase and losing a similar amount of weight during the unprocessed diet phase.
The effect of ultra processed foods on our health doesn’t end with weight gain. Obesity comes with its own set of comorbidities, but a diet based on eating foods containing ingredients that don’t appear in natural, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, have been shown to cause a number of chronic health conditions.
Metabolic syndrome and reduced levels of good, HDL-cholesterol have been associated with ultra processed foods. Some studies have shown an increased risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression when people eat a lot of these types of food7.
Ultra processed foods: when you know better you can choose better
When you walk into your local grocery store to buy food for yourself and your family, are you paying attention to what you are putting in your trolley?
Ultra processed foods are designed to look good and appeal to our taste buds. To do this food either needs to be manipulated to a point where it is unrecognisable or ingredients that have no place in our food supply need to be added to them.
The human body is designed to use nutrients from natural food products such as fresh produce and animals. Our digestive system and metabolic processes don’t know what to do with high levels of artificial ingredients we are exposed to. As a result, we gain weight and develop chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Next time you head out to do the grocery shopping, stop and think about what you are going to buy, their ingredients and the possible health consequences. When you choose natural, minimally processed foods you are choosing health. When you opt for ultra processed foods you are choosing disease.
Nourishing your body is one of the five pillars of healthy living. The Unstress Health programs are designed to support you in making more informed decisions to support your physical and mental health.
- Gramza-Michałowska A. The Effects of Ultra Processed Food Consumption—Is There Any Action Needed? Nutrients [Internet]. 2020 Aug 24 [cited 2022 Jun 28];(9):2556. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/nu12092556
- Braesco V, Souchon I, Sauvant P, Haurogné T, Maillot M, Féart C, et al. Ultra processed foods: how functional is the NOVA system? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition [Internet]. 2022 Mar 21 [cited 2022 Jun 28]; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41430-022-01099-1
- Khandpur N, Rossato S, Drouin-Chartier J-P, Du M, Steele EM, Sampson L, et al. Categorising ultra processed foods in large-scale cohort studies: evidence from the Nurses’ Health Studies, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, and the Growing Up Today Study. Journal of Nutritional Science [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2022 Jun 28]; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/jns.2021.72
- View of NOVA. The star shines bright [Internet]. World Nutrition. [cited 2022 Jun 28]. Available from: https://worldnutritionjournal.org/index.php/wn/article/view/5/4
- Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB, Moubarac J-C, Louzada ML, Rauber F, et al. Ultra processed foods: what they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutrition [Internet]. 2019 Feb 12 [cited 2022 Jun 28];(5):936–41. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1368980018003762
- Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, Cai H, Cassimatis T, Chen KY, et al. Ultra Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metabolism [Internet]. 2019 Jul [cited 2022 Jun 28];(1):67-77.e3. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
- Pagliai G, Dinu M, Madarena MP, Bonaccio M, Iacoviello L, Sofi F. Consumption of ultra processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition [Internet]. 2020 Aug 14 [cited 2022 Jun 28];(3):308–18. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007114520002688