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BANT Cautions Against Dropping Policies that Support Reduced Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods

British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)

6 min read Partner content

Boris Johnson today announced that he would ban the UK’s ‘Sugar Tax’ as it ‘clobbers those, who can least afford it’, BANT have responded.  

With the UK and its precious NHS crumbling under the weight of the growing obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and other chronic conditions crisis, BANT cautions against dropping policies that support reduced consumption of ultra-processed foods and which would prioritise purchasing power over proven all-round mortality links to ultra-processed foods and drinks.

Ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPFD) are constantly in the media nowadays. A series of recent scientific studies have highlighted how bad they are for human health and we at BANT repeatedly recommend that this category of foods and drinks is avoided as much as possible.  In a world where the scientific community and the media, contradicts itself from one day to the next, what is the truth about UPFDs? What are they? Are they really that bad for your health? BANT explains:

Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks – the Official Definition

In 2013, following endless debates that the term processed foods was misleading, because every food that is prepared is processed to some degree, even from fresh ingredients at home, the NOVA Classification was defined by Brazilian researcher, Carlos Monteiro. In summary, the definition says that an UPFD is an industrialised formulation of five or more ingredients including flavour injections, sugars, chemical preservatives and fats added at the final stage of processing in an industrial food plant. Here is the definition in full:

“Ultra-processed products are made from processed substances extracted or refined from whole foods e.g. oils, hydrogenated oils and fats, flours and starches, variants of sugar and cheap parts or remnants of animal foods – with little or no whole foods. Products include burgers, frozen pasta, pizza and pasta dishes, nuggets and sticks, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, cereal bars, carbonated and other sugared drinks and various snack products. Most are made, advertised and sold by large or transnational corporations and are very durable, palatable and ready to consume, which is an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable whole or minimally processed foods…[They] are typically energy dense; have a high glycaemic load; are low in dietary fibre, micronutrients and phytochemicals and are high in unhealthy types of dietary fat, free sugars and sodium.

When consumed in small amounts and with other healthy sources of calories, ultra-processed products are harmless; however, intense palatability (achieved by high content of fat, sugar, salt and cosmetic and other additives), omnipresence and sophisticated and aggressive marketing strategies (such as reduced price for super-size servings) all make modest consumption of ultra-processed products likely and displacement of fresh and minimally processed foods very likely. These factors also make ultra-processed products liable to harm endogenous satiety mechanisms and so promote energy overconsumption and thus obesity”

Ultra-Processed Foods, A New Name for an Old Food Category

Ultra-processed is relatively new term for something that has been around since 1954 when the first TV dinner was launched. In previous guises they have been known as: TV dinners; convenience foods; ready meals; processed foods; microwave meals; snacks and confectionary.  

European surveys show that ultra-processed foods now account for 50.4% of total dietary energy, with baked goods and fizzy drinks being the most popular UPFDs. Young people from lower income families tend to be the highest consumers due to their affordability and perceived pleasure. It is understandable that if you can’t afford many treats, meeting at a local, known-brand, fast-food outlet is a simple and affordable pleasure. That being said, ultra-processed foods are attractive to all consumers thanks to the massive marketing budgets weighted behind them.  A recent Brazilian study showed that already by the age of six, a massive 40.3% of total food intake came from UPFDs.

Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks – the Growing Ill-Health Connection

Recently published scientific studies looking into UPFDs and the human health connection have found many links to, amongst others: cancer; CVD; inflammatory bowel disease; respiratory disease; obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. The exact reasons why these foods are so bad for health are still unknown, but several theories have been and are being investigated including high levels of sugar; fat; salt; food additives; contaminants formed during high heat processing and chemicals used in packaging. Despite having been irrefutably proven to be detrimental to health, trans fats, whilst being phased out of the human food chain, are still present in some UPFDs, according to a 2018 SACN (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition) report.

So, what?

In conclusion, whilst the research community is unanimous in its findings that the ultra-processed food and drink category is bad for human health, there are still questions and inconclusive results relating to the individual ingredients that may be the triggering factors. High fat; salt; sugar; flavourings; additives; fillers; emulsifiers and meat quality have all been in the spotlight. What is likely, but not yet scientifically proven, is that the cocktail of many of these individual ingredients working in combination is the determining factor.

Whilst we do live in the ‘Age of Convenience’, thanks to the busy lives we now all lead, there are things that could be done to encourage the protection of the nation’s health. BANT has repeatedly called for a revised approach to nutrition education and support. Without the reintroduction of home economics in schools, many children never learn to cook with simple ingredients and as they grow into adults, they, themselves, are unable to pass on any food preparation knowledge to their own children.

Here are BANT’s top tips for Nutrition in the Age of Convenience

  • Make minimally processed ingredients the heart of your eating. Fresh, tinned or frozen vegetables and fruits; meats/fish/dairy/tofu; legumes; nuts and seeds; dairy and eggs.
  • Avoid any foods that list more than 5 ingredients and especially any foods that list ingredients that you find difficult to pronounce.
  • Limit foods that include the word ‘fortified’ or ‘added’ followed by vitamins and minerals. If the food manufacturer has had to add it in, then it was stripped out during processing.
  • If your school doesn’t have any form of cooking classes or after school clubs, consider finding one for the school holidays. Children who cook are known to be more experimental in their tastes and they can treat their families to a home-cooked meal every so often.
  • Ultra-processed foods are heavily marketed as ‘convenient’, but it takes no longer to make scrambled eggs on toast than it does to heat a frozen-ready meal in the microwave.
  • Eating a more minimally processed focused diet does need a bit more planning and cooking, but by doubling quantities you can either freeze the uneaten batch if your freezer is big enough or you can use the second batch for lunchboxes for work or school.
  • Ultra-processed foods and drinks are not a treat. Marketing and advertising have convinced us that a treat isn’t a treat if it doesn’t include something, salty and sugary to eat or drink. Consider offering connected moments: a trip to the playground, a board-game or a simple, home-cooked romantic meal, instead of putting your health at risk for a fleeting moment of an UPFD offering.

This article has been abridged from a fully referenced, academic article published for BANT members. If you are interested in receiving the full article, please email: [email protected]


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