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Ultra-processed foods

Liz Parry delves into the topic of ultra-processed foods and why they are so harmful for our health

Ultra-processed foods have been hitting the headlines in recent times because of their links with chronic disease. According to two new studies, ultra-processed foods increase the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.

Furthermore, according to a study published in BMJ Open, ultra-processed foods account for 57 per cent of total energy intake and 65 per cent of total free sugars in the UK diet. But what exactly are ultra-processed foods, and how can we reduce our consumption of them?

Harmful additives

"Processing food means changing its natural state to prolong its shelf life, and making it safe to store or to eat," says Shona Wilkinson, lead nutritionist at ethical nutrition and supplement brand DR.VEGAN ( "However, ultra-processed food is very different. It contains substances that you wouldn't typically find in your kitchen, along with harmful additives to improve taste.

Ultra-processed foods contain a lot of added sugar, salt, and fat, and often none of the vitamins and minerals that form part of a balanced diet, making them much less nutritionally complete than normal food."

Shona adds: "Most people think that ultra-processed foods refer solely to fast food or things you'd find on a takeaway menu, but they also include protein shakes and meal replacement powders, and foods we put in our shopping trolley on a regular basis such as biscuits and crisps, fried snacks, and fizzy drinks."

High in sugar and salt

"Katia Frank, a nutritionist at Nordic Balance, a gym and health club based in St James's, London ( explains: "Ultra-processed foods are generally considered bad for your health for several reasons. Firstly, they are high in added sugars, which can contribute to weight gain and an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. They are often loaded with salt, which can lead to high blood pressure. They contain additives and preservatives which can be inflammatory, and they are high in unhealthy trans fats and saturated fats known to raise cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease."

A long-term health risk

"It's much easier to overindulge in ultra-processed food and actually consume more calories than we realise, simply because these foods are designed to taste nice to the general public," says Shona Wilkinson. "They stimulate our brain's ‘feel-good' dopamine centre, making us crave more of it in the future. The labelling of ultra-processed foods such as powdered supplements is a huge problem, as they claim to have ‘no artificial sugars'. However, their ingredients contain plant-sugar alternatives such as stevia, which are 350 times sweeter than sugar, and just as bad for consumers' health as artificial sweeteners. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently warned consumers against using non-sugar sweeteners, as they are a long-term health risk."

Healthier options and healthier choices

So how can we reduce our intake of ultra-processed foods and make healthier choices?

"Preparing meals at home is a good start," says Katia Frank. "You'll have better control over the ingredients and cooking methods. Strive for a varied, balanced diet that includes lean protein, healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil, and fibre-rich foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. When out shopping, always read the food label – if it has a long list of unrecognisable ingredients, don't buy it! For snacks, choose healthier options like nuts, seeds, yogurt or fresh fruit instead of chips or sugary snacks. And if you're thirsty, have water or herbal teas, not sugary drinks."

Shona Wilkinson adds: "Instead of heading out for a sausage roll from the hot counter on your lunch break, take your leftovers from last night's dinner, or perhaps prioritise dried fruit and vegetables when you're rummaging the aisles for your lunch. When cooking at home, batch-cook your favourite meals and freeze them, so you can come back to them later. I'd also recommend swapping out pre-packaged snacks for whole foods as much as you can. If you find it hard to give up your daily protein bar, always check the label for high levels of sugars (even if it says ‘no artificial sugar'), saturated fat and sodium content before you consume. I'd also recommend taking a multivitamin supplement for additional nutritional insurance, so you can rest assured that any nutritional gaps within your diet are filled."

Did you know?

14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children are estimated to be addicted to ultra-processed food, according to research from the University of Michigan in the US.

Foods and drinks to avoid

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

Source: The British Heart Foundation

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