Ultra-processed foods: simple ways to reduce your intake – and risks

We’re eating too much ultra-processed food, and it could be harming our health. Here are some easy ways to cut down.

Ultra-processed foods make up more than half of the average UK adult’s daily calorie intake – and they can be bad news for your health.

Eating too much of them can lead to weight gain, and health issues such as high blood pressure, higher blood cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes. Recent research has found that ultra-processed foods may also be linked to an increased risk of cancer. And you might be surprised which foods are ultra-processed, so you might be eating more of them than you think.

Ultra-processed foods such as cherry bake well cake, biscuits and salty snacks (crisps/nuts)Credit: Shutterstock / Daisy Daisy
Ultra-processed foods can lead to type 2 diabetes among other health conditions

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed – what it means

The foods we buy are defined by the NOVA food classification system, depending on their ingredients and the processes used to make them.

According to this definition, ultra-processed foods are the most processed type of foods – typically created by a series of industrial processes. They usually have more than five ingredients and often contain additives (like modified maize starch, ascorbic acid, sodium carbonate, potassium sorbate and many others). They don’t tend to contain much protein, fibre or other nutrients.

“These are foods that are very familiar to us that tend to be made in mass amounts so certain things are added to them,” explains, Dr Linia Patel, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “For example, flavours, colours, additives and altering or thickening agents – not typical ingredients you would find in your kitchen.”

Some examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • sweetened breakfast cereals
  • mass-produced (i.e. pre-packaged) bread and buns
  • pre-prepared meat such as sausages, burgers and nuggets (this includes vegetarian and vegan options too)
  • ready-made pastries, pizza and pasta dishes
  • ready-made cheese dishes and processed cheese products
  • instant soup and noodles
  • sweet or salty packaged snacks
  • biscuits, cakes, flavoured yogurts, and margarine.

“Ultra-processed foods are low in nutritional value,” Dr Patel explains. “They’re usually energy-dense (high-calorie) foods that have more salt, sugar, unhealthy fats and artificial additives included. What happens when we eat these foods is they play havoc with our blood sugar levels and they don’t make us feel full, so we want to eat more of them.

“Over time, this can lead to weight gain, and the more you eat these types of foods, the more they increase your risk of obesity. Some of these foods also come with contaminants and other carcinogenic compounds (cancer-causing substances).”

It’s possible to enjoy ultra-processed foods in moderation, as part of a balanced diet. They can be convenient when we’re short on time. But if ultra-processed foods make up too much of your daily diet, reducing them could improve your health.

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Colourful sugary breakfast cereal in a bowl on a blue backgroundCredit: Shutterstock / Meigav
Sugary cereal is an ultra-processed food

The health risks

What the latest research tells us

Ultra-processed foods have previously been linked with a range of poor health outcomes including increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

The latest research by Imperial College London’s School of Public Health used UK Biobank records (a large biomedical database) to collect information on the diets of 200,000 middle-aged adults. Each participant’s health was monitored over a 10-year period to look at their risk of developing cancer.

This comprehensive study, the first of its kind in the UK, found that a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a greater risk of developing cancer overall, specifically ovarian and brain cancers. Higher consumption of these foods was also linked to an increased risk of dying from cancer, most notably with ovarian and breast cancers. This study can’t prove that the extra cancer risk was caused by ultra-processed foods, however. Although the research adjusted for other lifestyle factors, there still could have been factors that were influencing the results.

“What the Imperial College study shows us is that for every additional 10% of ultra-processed foods that are eaten, there is an incremental increase in the risk of overall cancer, particularly ovarian and breast cancers,” Patel explains.

“But this isn’t entirely new, as other studies have previously identified that ultra-processed foods are not good for us.”

It’s worth saying that a food being ultra-processed doesn’t mean that it’s the least healthy option. For example, cured meats such as bacon are classed as processed, not ultra-processed, but are also linked with an increased cancer risk. Butter and salt are not ultra-processed foods, but eating too much of either is linked with an increased risk of heart disease. You can also choose healthier versions of foods that will still be classed as ultra-processed, such as wholemeal sliced bread.

Easy ways to cut down

How to eat less ultra-processed food

Delicious-looking cheesy pizza slice taken from a freshly-baked meat, olives and peppers pizza. Tomatoes and peppers are pictured nearby.Credit: Shutterstock / El Nariz
Adding vegetables to ultra-processed meals can make them a little better

Patel says the first step is to take a good look at what you typically add to your plate.

“Start by adding more good stuff to your diet, which we absolutely need to do,” she advises. “Many of us don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables and we don’t eat enough fibre.

“For example, if you choose to have toast for breakfast, try adding peanut butter and slices of apple next time. You would benefit from the fibre and phytonutrients (beneficial compounds found in plant foods such as antioxidants and flavonoids) that would come from the apple as well as the healthy fats you would get from the peanut butter.”

If you currently eat ultra-processed foods regularly, Patel suggests adding protective foods to your plate as this will help to offset some of the negative aspects of eating ultra-processed options. “Fruit and vegetables, lentils, legumes and pulses are all bursting with vitamins and minerals and are really good for us.”

“If you tend to eat convenience foods because of time pressures, try adding fruit and vegetables or salads to pimp up your meals.”

Simple food swaps

Wooden table covered in whole foods such as wholemeal bread and pastaCredit: Shutterstock / Nehophoto
Swap white bread and pasta for wholemeal

Tweaks you can make to what’s on your plate

Here are five ways to tweak your diet by swapping out ultra-processed foods for something that’s healthier and delicious.

Swap white bread for wholemeal bread

“White bread contains flour, water, yeast, salt and oil – all ingredients we would recognise. But because it also has emulsifiers and preservatives added to it, white bread is an example of an ultra-processed food,” Patel explains.

While the NOVA classification considers mass-produced bread of all types an ultra-processed food, switching to wholemeal bread, which includes wholegrain carbohydrates, is a healthier option.

Or you could make your own bread using flour, yeast and salt, Patel adds. You could also switch to buying traditionally made bread from your local bakery (as this won’t be subject to ultra-processing production methods).

Swap breakfast cereals for oats

Another popular ultra-processed food is breakfast cereals. Patel explains that cornflakes, for example, are far removed from the corn they originated from – so additional ingredients are needed to create that familiar cereal shape (not to mention the sugar added to these types of cereals too).

Switching to muesli or shredded wheat cereal is a good alternative.

“An even better breakfast option would be good old porridge oats,” Patel advises. “But bear in mind that flavoured porridge is an ultra-processed food due to what is added to it.”

Make your own quick dishes

Often, the reason we opt for ultra-processed options such as ready meals is that they are convenient and minimal hassle. But cooking your own doesn’t need to be time-intensive or complicated and it’ll be better for you too.

Shop-bought pasta sauces can be high in salt and sugar, so why not make your own by frying an onion, adding chopped tinned tomatoes and your favourite herbs, and simmering until thick? You can add tinned beans or chickpeas, and perhaps some spices, for a dish that will work equally well on a jacket potato or with rice. Home-made pesto is easy to make, especially if you have a food processor – whizz up fresh basil, nuts of your choice, garlic, parmesan cheese and plenty of olive oil.

Watch out for “plant-based” options

It can be easy to assume that choosing vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives and ready meals means healthier eating, but they aren’t always as good for you as you might think.

“A lot of people choose fake meat products because they are plant-based but when you look at the ingredients, often you’ll find they’re ones you hardly recognise so they aren’t actually healthy options,” Patel explains. “Eating more plant-based foods is absolutely healthier for us – but in their whole forms such as beans, dahl and rice.” Opting for wholegrain or brown rice will provide more nutrients and is better for you than choosing white.

Avoid protein bars and shakes

Protein bars and shakes are often marketed as being healthy choices but are typically ultra-processed. Patel says that protein shakes are OK as an occasional treat, but a healthier alternative is to make your own at home. “Blend together a banana, milk and some frozen raspberries and you’ll have a tasty milkshake that’s not ultra-processed and is cheaper too.” You can also blend in a spoonful of your favourite nut butter for some added protein.

For unprocessed alternatives to protein bars, reach for a handful of nuts, or a nuts and dried fruit mix.

What about other processed foods?

The four levels of processed foods

Research by the British Nutrition Foundation in 2021 found we can find it difficult to identify what is ultra-processed versus other types of processed food that is slightly better for us. Being able to spot which ingredients to be wary of could be a simple way to start to make healthier food choices.

Foods are divided into four main categories as part of the NOVA food classification system, a way of classifying processed foods that was devised by nutritional researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

  1. Group one is unprocessed, natural foods such as fruit and vegetables (including seeds, fruits, leaves, stems or roots), and unprocessed meat and fish (including eggs and milk).
  2. Group two is minimally processed – products that have been obtained directly from the foods in group one such as sugar, honey, vegetable oils made from olives or seeds, and corn starch.
  3. Group three includes processed foods that have been made by adding sugar, oil, salt or a group two substance to group one foods. For example, salted, cured or smoked meats, cheese, tinned food (unless it doesn’t have any added ingredients) and unpackaged freshly-made breads.
  4. Group four – ultra-processed foods (and drinks) –  is the main area of concern. These foods are high in calories, and contain unhealthy types of fats, refined starches, sugars and salt. They are typically also poor sources of protein, fibre and nutrients.
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Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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