Jan 12, 2024

I'm a dietitian

MOST of what we eat isn't really food, experts have warned.

More than half the calories the average Brit scoffs every day are deemed "ultra-processed" and have been linked to poor health and early death.

But what exactly is ultra-processed food (UPF) and what are the dangers?

Dr Emily Leeming, a registered dietitian, explains.

She said: "Ultra-processed foods are foods that are packaged and have industrial ingredients in them, like added fats and sugars, but also additives and emulsifiers.

"They tend to be foods with long lists of ingredients on the back of the pack."

The NOVA classification system divides foods into categories based on how much they have been processed during production.

These are:

When it comes to UPF, Dr Leeming said they are best kept to a minimum - but there are several she would avoid in particular.

That's because UPFs often have high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar so leave less room in our diets for more nutritious foods.

They also commonly contain chemicals, colourings, sweeteners and preservatives.

A spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation said: "It's been suggested that the additives in these foods could be responsible for negative health effects."

Research has found that higher consumption of UPFs may be linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

In January, a team at the School of Public Health at London's Imperial College discovered that people were more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian and brain cancers if their diet was high in UPFs.

The authors of a separate study in France, published in the British Medical Journal, said: "Results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades."

The World Health Organization last month also cautioned against the long-term use of artificial sweeteners, common in UPFs, citing an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mortality in adults.

Others warned of the potential risk of stroke, dementia and early death.

Tim Spector, professor of epidemiology at King's College London, told BBC Panorama: "In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn't thought.

"We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia."

With this in mind, Dr Leeming outlined the nine "worst-offenders" when it comes to UPFs - and what to try instead.

Dr Leeming would ditch cans of Red Bull and Monster in favour of a glass of fresh orange juice.

She said: "Energy drinks contain caffeine and large amounts of sugar which can put stress on your heart.

"A small glass of 100 per cent orange juice makes up one of your five-a-day."

When it comes to your morning meal, Dr Leeming thinks a bowl of porridge is far better than a portion of Kellogg's Crunchy Nut.

"Sugary breakfast cereals won't keep you feeling full," she said.

"Try swapping for porridge or overnight oats which contain lots of fibre and beta-glucans which are great for heart health.

"High-fibre shredded wheat and bran cereals can still be a great option, despite being in the ultra-processed food category, as not all ultra-processed foods are bad for you."

Another simple swap could be shop-bought fried chicken for roast chicken legs.

"Regularly eating fried food can put you at higher risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Dr Leeming said.

"Roast chicken legs are a great alternative as they’re lower in unhealthy fats and a great source of protein."

It's no surprise that super sweet chocolate bars like Mars are off the cards.

Dr Leeming said that while they taste great, having them too often can raise your blood pressure and cause low-grade inflammation.

Instead, she would go for 70 per cent dark chocolate.

"It contains polyphenols - a group of antioxidants - and can be a great swap while still getting something sweet," she added.

You might think a sugar-free yoghurt is healthier than the full-fat alternative.

But these, especially when flavoured with things like salted caramel, are highly processed and won't keep you full for long, Dr Leeming said.

"Try swapping for Greek yoghurt instead," she added.

"Vegan food isn't always healthier," Dr Leeming said.

"Baking a portobello mushroom is a great swap for a frozen vegan burger patty, and it's just as quick to cook, has a meaty texture and is great for your health."

Put down the biscuits and pick up a handful of nuts and fresh fruit.

"They will help to balance your blood sugar levels," Dr Leeming said.

Cheese generally is considered a processed food, but some are ultra-processed.

"Cheese squares wrapped in plastic tend to only contain about 60 per cent of actual cheese in them," Dr Leeming said.

She recommends buying cheddar in a large block and cutting it into slices yourself.

"It can be cheaper than some of the less processed pre-sliced cheese options," she added.

Finally, if you find yourself reaching for a classic "chip and dip" combination, opt baked potato wedges and hummus instead.

"Crisps are high in calories, salt and saturated fat and creamy dips can be high in sugar," Dr Leeming said.

"Swap this for home-made baked sweet potato wedges and hummus for a more filling healthy snack."

While she feels strongly about cutting back on UPFs, Dr Leeming understands that they are often cheaper and more readily available.

However, TV doctor Chris van Tulleken feels so strongly about UPFs - or "industrially produced edible substances" - he dedicated a whole book to them.

The author of Ultra-Processed People said: "These substances can't even really be called 'food;.

"Increasingly, the calories we consume come from modified starches, from invert sugars, hydrolysed protein isolates and seed oils that have been refined, bleached, deodorised and hydrogenated.

"What this means is that everything from chicken nuggets to ice cream can be made from the same base liquids and powders."

WE all eat ultra-processed foods on a daily basis.

Some of the most common in British diets include:

Source: British Heart Foundation

Unprocessed or minimally processed Processed culinary ingredients Processed Ultra-processed