Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are foods which have been highly processed so that they are cheap edible products manufactured on an industrial scale. One way of identifying UPFs is by reading the ingredient list. They usually contain a very long list of additives, preservatives and other ingredients that you would not find in your kitchen. The food scientists that design these products are interested in making these these foods look delicious (adding colouring and emulsifiers), tasty (adding sugar, salt and fat), and long lasting for a long shelf life. Many times these foods taste so good that they cause overeating and sometimes addiction. Research over the past two decades clearly shows that consuming UPFs is linked obesity, heart disease, cancer and an increased risk of early death.
The processing of food in itself is not something negative - it involves changing food from its natural state to ensure it is safe to eat, enhance its taste, and prolonging its shelf life. The great majority of foods we consume are processed to some extent, and have been for thousands of years. This includes methods such as drying, fermenting, pasteurising and freezing. However UPFs are a recent phenomenon with the industrialisation of food systems. The NOVA classification system helps categorise foods and beverages based on the extent of their processing.
The type of industrial processes involved as well as chemicals added alter the food matrix (the complex structure of natural foods). These changes as well as high amounts of added sugar, unhealthy fats and salts causes drastic changes in our metabolism. High blood glucose and high triglyceride levels after ingestion of UPFs causes an inflammatory response and a surge in insulin production. Repeated glucose and insulin spikes lead to insulin resistance - the underlying cause of many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
Why are UPFs so addictive? Why is it so easy to over eat and consume vast amount of calories? An abundance of food and easily available calories is a recent change in our environment. Throughout evolution, our ancestors were opportunistic omnivores, meaning they survived by eating whatever they could because they never knew the their next meal would be. We have evolved very efficient ways of storing fat from excess calories as stores for times when food is scarce.
Our environment has changed rapidly but we are still 99% genetically identical to our ancestors. Our genes are telling us to eat when we can. Think of how many breakfast cereals, energy bars, sweet and savoury packaged snacks and fizzy drinks are available in supermarkets. Adults in the UK now obtain approximately 60% of their total calories from UPFs, (as high as 75% in children!).
The availability and consumption of these foods has increased drastically in the past two decades, this is one of the reasons that over 2/3rds of adults in the western world are overweight. Interestingly obesity rates are higher in more deprived areas most likely due to high UPF consumption.
In a landmark study in 2019, twenty adults underwent a clinical trial which linked UPF consumption to increased calorie intake and weight gain. Participants were split into 2 groups, and allowed to eat as much as they wished. The group eating a diet mainly consisting of UPFs consumed approximately 500 extra calories per day and gained weight, compared to those eating a mostly unprocessed diet who lost weight over 2 weeks.
Aside from weight gain and poor metabolic health UPFs also negatively affect your gut microbiome - the microbes which live in our intestines which are crucial to our health. People with a diet rich in UPFs have harmful gut microbes which are associated with an increased risk of developing cancer, obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The best way to reduce UPF consumption is by making conscious choices to eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables; dried fruit and nuts; fresh fish, meat, poultry and eggs; whole grain pasta and bread. It would be nearly impossible to completely avoid UPFs in our diet but you can make major changes by cooking at home as often as possible; snacking on whole foods rather than pre-packed snacks; reducing your fast food consumption and checking food labels for excess ingredients like saturated fat, sodium (salt) and sugar.
This is how you can identify UPFs:
Foods containing a long list of ingredients
Ingredients which you cannot recognise
High fat, salt and sugar content
Very long shelf life
Aggressive marketing and branding
Before you eat something ask yourself whether you would be able to make it in your own kitchen, if not then its likely to be ultra processed and best avoided.
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