How to reduce ultra-processed foods in a balanced way.

What is an UPF (ultra-processed food)?

Ultra-processed foods, or UPF’s, are foods that have been significantly altered from their “natural” state. They have gone through a series of processing steps. Now processing of food isn’t inherently a bad thing, we eat processed foods all the time. In the strictest sense, even cutting a food up before you eat it is a form of processing. Cooking is also a form of processing, and for many foods this is an essential step for food safety, taste and ensuring that you can actually eat and digest it. The issue is how processed a food is and how much of these foods we eat.

The four categories of UPFs

To help identify exactly how processed a food is, the University of São Paulo in Brazil created the NOVA food classification system, which splits foods into four categories:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: This includes produce such as fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds that have no added ingredients and have been little altered from their natural state.
  2. Processed ingredients: This includes foods that are added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves, such as salt, sugar and oils.
  3. Processed foods: Foods that are made by combining foods from groups 1 and 2, which are altered in a way that home cooks could do themselves. They include foods such as jam, pickles, tinned fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses.
  4. Ultra-processed foods: Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf.

You may think of UPF’s only coming in the form of fast foods and baked goods such as crisps, biscuits and shop bought cakes. However, many common food items can be classed as an ultra-processed food too. This includes shop bought bread, fruit flavoured yoghurts and some breakfast cereals. A loaf bought from a shop may count instead as a UPF if it contains preservatives. Plant based meat and cheese alternatives can also count as a UPF. In fact, latest studies suggest that in the UK, more than half of a typical person’s daily energy comes from UPFs.

There is no need to panic here, as I’m going to talk you through how to identify ultra-processed foods, if and when to reduce your intake, the ones to keep eating and some simple swaps you can make.

How to identify ultra-processed foods:

There isn’t a single way to identify UPF’s, although the NOVA classification lists some key features to look out for. On top of this, food companies don’t have to list the types of processing a product has gone through, or the reasons why.

The most straight-forward way to spot a UPF is to look at the ingredients list. Ingredients that aren’t usually found in a home kitchen are an indicator of UPF. For example, hydrolysed or isolate proteins, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, invert sugar or hydrogenated oil. Additionally, flavourings, emulsifiers, thickeners and other “agents” can be ingredients to look out for. These ingredients are used to alter the texture, flavour or shelf life of a product.

Are ultra-processed foods bad for our health?

UPF’s cover a broad range of foods, some of which may be less health-promoting than others. The issue is that these foods often have higher levels of salt, saturated fat and sugar whilst being lower in other nutrients. When foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar take up a large part of the diet, there is less room for foods containing a broader range of nutrients. There is research suggesting a link between ultra-processed foods and chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Whilst this is a correlation and there are other factors that could also be at play, it makes nutritional sense.

How to reduce Ultra Processed foods without restriction

Reduce and not restrict

Does this mean you should not be eating ultra-processed foods? I don’t think so. We need a REDUCE and not RESTRICT mantra here. In the case of UPFs that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, moderation is recommended, but again this makes nutritional sense. Eating biscuits for every meal isn’t going to be a good plan long term! Being aware of what you eat is important but food is also to be enjoyed. Plus, some UPF’s can form a useful part of a balanced meal. Take tinned baked beans on toast as an example. This is an ultra processed meal but provides you with a portion of vegetables, protein, fibre and many micronutrients.

Additionally, UPF’s can be digested differently to their less-processed counterparts. Take sweetcorn for example. Eating sweetcorn on the cob requires some work to be digested, and you may even notice some pieces of corn visible when you go to the bathroom the following day. Corn in its natural form is high in fibre, and may support gut health. In contrast, a corn tortilla chip has been processed in a way that makes it digested very quickly, making it more energy-dense and giving less benefits to gut health. In my opinion both forms can be included in your diet but with a good dose of common sense. Why not add a smashed avocado dip on the side with your corn chips to add fibre and vegetables.

We still need more research to be able to give more detailed answers about the impacts of UPFs on our health.

Should we go UPF free?

Finding the balance between reducing ultra-processed foods and staying realistic to you is important. Not everyone has the time to bake their own bread, or the budget to buy from artisan bakeries. I don’t think this is necessary either. We have had the low-carb diet, low fat brigade, low sugar crusade. One after another nutrients and food groups are demonised. Let’s not go down this rabbit hole with ultra-processed foods. Life can be busy and making everything from scratch takes time, cooking know-how and effort. However we also do not want to be over-eating ultra-processed foods. The evidence around UPFs and negative health outcomes is currently inconsistent, so what is the best approach.

UPFs exist on a spectrum in terms of their health impact. Ideally we could do with this spectrum spelt out, or some kind of way of rating these foods. Right now this is not available but we can think about reducing but not restricting some of the ones that are least health promoting. If you are unsure, go back to the ingredients list, or look at the saturated fat, salt and sugar content. Think through the overall balance of your diet. Having a cereal bar on some days or biscuits with your cuppa is not going to be a problem when you are having nutritious foods at other meals. However eating ready meals, shop bought lunches and snacks with UPF’s at every meal and snack is something to rethink.

Aim for the swaps that will make the most difference to your health, such as having water more often than fizzy drinks or making your own pasta sauces where possible. Below is a list of swaps you could look through to find the ones most relevant to your lifestyle.

Swaps for Ultra-Processed foods to easily make at home:

I really want to highlight here that you do not have to cut all UPF’s out of your diet, this is unrealistic. Remember the mantra: “Reduce and don’t Restrict. All foods in moderation”

Here are some swaps that may be helpful for you:

Jar of pasta sauceHomemade pasta sauce using tinned tomatoes, dried herbs, garlic.
Cereal BarsHomemade fruity flapjacks.
Cakes and MuffinsBake a homemade batch, freeze some and use others as snacks.
Bought pizzaMake your own pizza base plus sauce and add your favourite toppings.
Processed meat products (sausages, bacon, fried chicken)Reduce the frequency of these foods but remember you do not need to cut them out.
Breakfast cereals that are sweetened or colouredUse wholegrain cereals (wheat bisks, shredded wheat, oats, shreddies) as your main cereal and add a handful of the more processed version on top to get the best of both!
Fruit flavoured yoghurtsNatural yoghurt or plain greek yoghurt with fruit on the top.
Pies and pasties Swap for homemade stews, soups with a bread roll.
Fizzy and sweetened drinksUse a soda stream to make fizzy water and add fruit to it for flavour.
Ready MealsTotally useful to have now and again, it’s a good idea to add to these. A portion fo vegetables on the side can help balance the meal. Where you can cook meals from scratch in bulk so you can eat the same meal twice or freeze a portion.
Confectionery and crisps If these are your fun foods then this is about moderation and balance, so please do not feel you need to cut these foods out. Reducing them to sensible portions and focusing on enjoying the ones you love is helpful.
Cook in SaucesHaving a selection of easy to cook recipes making your own sauces can help build the skills and confidence to be able to make meals quickly that are cheap and nutritious. One of my go to sites is BBC Food. Don’t forget there may be occasions where these foods are helpful to have in your cupboard.
Shop bought breadsChoose a wholegrain bread and one higher in fibre, but do not feel you need to make your own bread, cut all bread out or buy artisan bread (which is less processed) unless you want to/are able to.
Tinned soupsMake your own where possible, these can be quick and easy to make.Or opt for a lower salt soup, add some extra protein such as cheese and a bread roll on the side.

Some top tips to help with time and the cost:

Make your own mix of dried fruit, nuts and seeds and pop in a jar for easy snacking. This saves you making up a fresh mix each time.

Whizz up hummus using tinned chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice. This will freeze.

Plan to make more sandwiches at home instead of buying a meal deal. You can make a couple of days lunches in one go to save time on some days.

Cook a meal from scratch in bulk so you can eat the same meal twice or freeze a portion.

Club together with others to share the cooking and the shopping.

Look out for offers on fruit and vegetables, end of line bargains and think about growing a little food yourself. Even a few pots of fresh herbs can make all the difference.

Why you may need to eat UPF’s :

There can be various reasons why you may need to eat ultra-processed foods. For example, baby formula milk is ultra processed but essential for many babies! People on special diets can be reliant on foods that are classed as UPF’s. Coeliac disease, food allergies, kidney disease, genetic conditions, digestive conditions and eating disorders can all mean these foods are essential or required. Which is totally fine, there should be no shame or fear around this.

Public health and media messages can often be quite blackened white. In reality we know life is more shades of grey! If you are unsure please reach out to your trusted health professionals, remember dietitians are the most qualified to give nutrition advice. My team are always happy to help.

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