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What are Ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods, are highly processed foods, that typically contain five or more ingredients that have undergone multiple processing steps and contain a high amount of additives such as sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives.

Ultra-processed foods already make up more than half of the total dietary energy consumed in adults in high-income countries such as the USA, Canada and the UK. Dr Sarah Berry states, on the BBC Panorama programme Ultra-Processed Food: A Recipe for Ill Health, “that the energy intake for children of ultra-processed foods is around 65%, and which is still increasing at an alarming rate.”

In the opening statement of the BBC Panorama programme they express that “we are consuming too much ultra-processed foods, people consuming more ultra-processed food have higher risk of disease and death”.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include ice cream, crisps, biscuits, sugary carbonated drinks and fast food, but also foods that we may possibly perceive to be good to include in our diet such as some breakfast cereals, fruit flavoured yoghurts and packaged mass-produced breads. Ultra-processed foods also include added ingredients not common in home cooking such as preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners.

Ultra-processed food must not be confused with processed foods, as many processed foods have simply been packaged in ways to become time-saving kitchen essentials and have very little else added to them. Processed foods are, for example, cans/jars of tomatoes, beans, lentils, fruit, vegetables, and fish. It is important to just double check the labels to ensure they only contain the main ingredient plus perhaps one or two others such as water, salt, sugar or oil, which merely act as a preservative.

Confusion can occur when comparing certain foods in umbrella groups. An example here would be cheeses or packaged meats as these are generally processed foods. However, many plant-based meat and cheese alternatives are actually ultra-processed due to the substitutes used to manufacture them. This may then make them less healthy than how they are perceived through the way they are marketed.

Dr Sarah Berry, from the Department of Nutritional Sciences also states, “There’s a term we use called the health halo here you have packaging that says ‘high in fibre’, ‘low in sugar’, ‘low in salt’, ‘plant based’. All of these magic words which makes people think ‘Wow these are really healthy’. If anything ever says ‘low’, ‘reduced’ or ‘no’, I’d always be a bit suspicious because how else have they made these foods taste great?”

Ultra-processed foods are often high in calories, salt, unhealthy fats as well as containing possibly harmful emulsifiers, and they are low in essential nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals.

What ultra-processed food do

Ultra-processed foods are defined as foods that have been altered to include unhealthy saturated fats, sugars, salts, and other additives extracted from other foods, and in some cases chemically manufactured substances. They are a patchwork of ingredients, additives, and preservatives that add taste and flavour, making them highly palatable and easy to overconsume.

Ultra-processed foods have been linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and other health problems.

In the TwinsUK study run by Professor Tim Spector at King’s, one twin, Aimee, ate an ultra-processed diet while her sister Nancy ate the same amount of calories through consuming raw or low-processed foods. The outcome was that Aimee would feel hungry 2-4 hours after eating due to the dip in her blood sugar levels, she also gained a kilo of weight. If this diet was continued long-term this may lead to diabetes and heart disease.

The PREDICT study, the largest and most detailed study of its kind, uncovered strong links between the food a person eats, the microbes in their gut (microbiome), and their health. This study indicates that eating a diet rich in minimally processed plant-based foods is associated with having more “good” gut microbes linked to better heart and metabolic health. Highly processed foods, whether from animals or plants, are associated with “bad” gut microbes linked to poorer health markers.

Two studies on ultra-processed foods were published in the British Medical Journal in 2019. The first followed 105,159 people in France over a two year period. The study split the participants into four groups depending on their consumption of ultra-processed foods. Those that consumed the largest quantities of ultra-processed foods showed a greater risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Another study of 19,899 university graduates in Spain showed similar findings, with the group that ate more than four ultra-processed foods per day, being more likely to die after an average of 10.4 years than the group that ate less than two ultra-processed foods per day.

The overall conclusion is that ultra-processed foods are often nutrient-poor and lack the necessary vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function properly.

What you should eat instead of ultra-processed foods

Instead of consuming ultra-processed foods, it is recommended to eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. These foods are nutrient-dense and provide the body with the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly.

In a busy lifestyle it becomes very easy to grab convenience foods due to time restrictions, but we all need to re-think and re-balance our eating habits if we want ourselves and our families to have healthy lifestyles.

Minimising on the consumption of ultra-processed foods along with eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and replacing sugary drinks for water are some first easy steps.

Replacing ultra-processed snacks, like some types of crisps and biscuits for healthier options like nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit can help reduce the intake of unhealthy additives and preservatives and are an easy and quick swap.

Some adjustments, as mentioned above, can be made more easily than others. However, replacing ‘quick and easy’ to cook in the oven ready meals, for example, can perhaps seem more overwhelming. Batch cooking, by spending time to cook your favourite meals in large quantities and freezing them for the weeks ahead is often key to overcoming this barrier.

Here at UCU we can help you access your gut health and help tailor a Unique Plan to enable you to become more aware to what you are eating and how this may have a positive impact on your long-term health.

Please do get in touch for a Preliminary Consultation or email us

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