Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) consumption has become widespread, especially if your grocery cart is filled with items from the middle aisles of the store, primarily containing packaged and processed foods such as ready-made meals, hams, sausages, crisps, cookies, candies, chocolates, ice-cream and frozen desserts, frozen pizzas and other frozen ready-made foods, salad dressings, jarred sauces, instant noodles, breakfast cereals, energy bars, soft drinks etc. This shift in our shopping habits over the past 60 years has made it challenging to visually identify real, whole foods among the shelves filled with processed alternatives. The goal of this article is not to instil fear but to empower you to make informed choices when it comes to your food purchases and your health.
Understanding Food Processing
Food processing involves various activities that alter the natural state of food, including drying, freezing, milling, canning, or the addition of salt, sugar, fat, or other additives. Almost all foods undergo some level of processing before reaching us as consumers. Researchers use the NOVA classification system to categorise foods based on the extent and purpose of processing.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs)?
UPFs go beyond standard processing; they are products crafted from food-derived substances, enriched with additives to enhance appeal and prolong shelf life. These foods are designed for maximum profit, often being calorie-dense and rich in sugars, refined starches, unhealthy fats, and sodium, while lacking the nutrients our bodies need. I like how Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology, calls the ultra-processed foods: “edible food-like substances of which ingredients you typically wouldn't find in your home kitchen".
Global Impact of UPFs
UPFs have replaced unprocessed or minimally processed foods in diets globally, causing disruptions in nutrition, society, economics, and the environment. While UPFs were limited several decades ago, they now constitute a significant portion of total calorie intake in many countries, aligning with increased rates of obesity and related health issues. And unfortunately the consumption of ultra-processed foods is similar amongst the grownups and children.
Health Outcomes Associated with UPF Consumption
weight-gain and obesity
type 2 diabetes
mental health disorders
UPFs are energy-dense and disproportionately contribute added sugars, sodium, unhealthy saturated and trans-fats, and highly refined carbohydrates to the diet. This occurs at the expense of less-processed and freshly prepared foods, which provide numerous beneficial nutrients. Think about how often you have a freshly made home-cooked meal from whole-food ingredients?
UPFs promote overeating due to their convenience (ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat), hyper-palatability (formulations engineered for maximal sensory pleasure), disrupted satiety signalling (often not filling), and pervasive and persuasive marketing, particularly targeting children, with effective branding—features largely absent in unprocessed and minimally processed foods.
UPFs frequently contain harmful chemical substances formed during high-temperature cooking, industrial additives linked to inflammation and gut dysbiosis, and hormone-disrupting chemical compounds leached from plastics used in food manufacturing and packaging materials.
Making Informed Choices At the Grocery Store
To easily identify UPFs, check the ingredients list. If it contains numerous items not typically found in your kitchen and the food looks vastly different from natural, whole foods, it's likely ultra-processed. Here you can find easy to follow guidelines how to shop at the grocery story for better health for yourself and your family.
In conclusion, while completely avoiding ultra-processed foods may be challenging, striving to minimise their intake can significantly benefit your overall health. Choosing real, whole foods over processed alternatives aligns with a healthier lifestyle, promoting well-being and reducing the risk of various health issues. If you are somebody who wants to see themselves as being healthy and active till you are old and your why is because you want to play with your grandchildren one day, or you want to explore the world, hike the mountains- ultra processed foods are not going to help you get there.
If you are not sure how to take steps for better healthier diet, that supports your health goals, don't hesitate to reach out to me for health and nutritional coaching at email@example.com.