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When living in an age of ultra-processed foods, how can we protect our health?

When living in an age of ultra-processed foods, how can we protect our health?

Credit: BANT

British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)

5 min read Partner content

A series of recent scientific studies have highlighted how bad ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPFD) are for human health, and BANT repeatedly recommend that this category of foods and drinks is avoided as much as possible. But in a world where the scientific community and the media, contradicts itself from one day to the next, how bad are they for your health?

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.

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 a 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. 

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.

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.

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: communications@bant.org.uk

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