Ultra-processed foods are hard to escape, but how do they really affect our health? Registered nutritionist Gabi Zaromskyte explores their effects and suggests healthier alternatives
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are food products that undergo multiple stages of industrial processing, transforming raw ingredients into highly processed, ready-to-eat items. The classification of UPFs was introduced by Carlos Monteiro, a Brazilian nutritionist, who identified four categories of food processing: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed food substances.
Processes and ingredients used to manufacture ultra-processed foods are designed to create highly profitable low-cost ingredients with a long shelf-life, attractive branding, ready-to-consume convenient, hyper-palatable products.
"Examples of UPFs include soft drinks, packaged snacks, sugary cereals, frozen meals, and fast food items"
UPFs typically contain minimal whole foods and have long ingredient lists. They are commonly composed of high levels of saturated fat, sugars, sodium, as well as ingredients not used in a home kitchen, like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins.
Other ingredients commonly found in UPFs include sweeteners, flavourings, stabilisers, thickeners, colours, gums and emulsifiers all which extend shelf life and increase palatability, but can have all-round negative health effects.
Examples of UPFs include soft drinks, packaged snacks, sugary cereals, frozen meals, and fast food items.
The impact of ultra-processed food on your health
Numerous studies have linked the consumption of UPFs to adverse health outcomes. The French NutriNet-Santé study with over 100 thousand participants revealed that a 10 per cent increase in UPFs consumption was associated with a 12 per cent higher likelihood of developing some sort of cancer and an 11 per cent higher risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, three large US cohort studies confirmed the link between UPFs and colorectal cancer.
UK Biobank cohort study with over 60 thousand participants proved that UPFs increase the incidence of heart disease, as well as death caused by heart disease. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2023 found that higher UPFs intake was linked to an increased risk of overall mortality. All this is due to the unnatural, highly modified nature of UPFs.
UPFs include fast food, packaged snacks and frozen meals
The paradox with UPFs is that they often lack essential nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which are important for maintaining optimal health. However, the low nutrient density of these foods often leads to overeating, as the body seeks essential nutrients. This results in being nutritionally deficient, but overweight.
Additionally, UPFs are purposefully made to be extra palatable, making it hard to stop eating them once you start, disrupting your sense of hunger and fullness. Overconsumption of energy-dense foods can lead to weight gain and metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of obesity, type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
Moreover, although this area of research is still in its infancy, existing evidence suggests that UPFs can have negative effects on gut health. Emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners in UPFs may disrupt the gut microbiota, potentially contributing to gastrointestinal issues, like Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
"The paradox with UPFs is that [their] low nutrient density of often leads to overeating"
A small, recent study in women found that UPFs consumption was directly related to negative changes in the gut microbiota, which influenced leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone released from the fat tissue, which regulates satiety and helps maintain healthy weight.
Lastly, a Spanish population study with 359 participants found that gut microbiota was altered differently in men and women with increased UPFs consumption, likely due to the differences in hormonal profiles between the sexes, although the alterations in both sexes were negative.
All of the above is just brushing the surface of the existing evidence of how dangerous UPFs can be to health.
Identifying the worst offenders
Among the various UPFs, some of the worst offenders in terms of health impact include:
- Sugary beverages: Soft drinks, energy drinks, and fruit juices often contain excessive amounts of added sugars, leading to weight gain and an increased risk of metabolic diseases.
- Processed snacks: Packaged cookies, chips, pastries and sweets are high in unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and additives, leading to adverse effects on heart health and metabolism.
- Fast food: Burgers, fries, and other fast-food items are usually packed with calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium, promoting obesity and cardiovascular problems.
- Sugary cereals: Breakfast cereals with added sugars provide little nutritional value, leading to blood sugar spikes and subsequent crashes, contributing to unhealthy eating patterns.
- Another category to be mindful of is “healthy” marketed UPFs, like protein and energy bars. Despite being seemingly healthy, such products still fall under ultra-processed foods and are packed with sweeteners or sugars and emulsifiers (not all of them, so do read the labels). Steer clear of diet/calorie-free and sugar-free products, as their composition can hinder the gut microbiome and result in bloating and abdominal discomfort.
Shifting away from UPFs
Shifting away from UPFS consumption requires individual efforts as well as collective actions.
Education of the public is a crucial first step when trying to change consumer behaviour. Raising awareness about the health risks associated with UPFs through public health campaigns, school programs, and media messages can help people make informed choices. If you’re reading this, play your part to educate your family, friends and colleagues about the matter and help spread awareness. At the end of the day, it is consumer demand that drives the supply of UPFs.
Food labels can be confusing for consumers
Also, improved food labeling is essential to make it easier for consumers to spot UPFs. Governments should mandate clear and informative labeling of UPFs products, including the amounts of added sugars, saturated fats, and various additives. For example, instead of highlighting that a sugary cereal marketed to children contains 30 per cent less sugar, tricking consumers into thinking a certain option is healthier, manufacturers should be obliged to clearly disclose (not in tiny letters at the back of the pack) that this is compared to other unhealthy cereals, which essentially doesn’t mean anything beneficial.
Moreover, supporting local farmers and sustainable food production can make fresh, minimally processed foods more readily available.
Lastly, governments should encourage the food industry giants to reformulate their products and reduce all non-beneficial ingredients, while making healthier options more accessible. This is, of course, easier said than done, as industry leaders have power over government decisions. Once again this highlights the importance of educating consumers to shift demand towards healthier options and making those healthier choices more attainable.
Healthy alternatives to UPFs
Replace packaged snacks with fresh foods, like apples, berries, or carrots and cucumbers for a nutritious and satisfying snack. Pair them with unsalted nuts, hummus or guacamole to make the snacks more satiating.
Opt for homemade meals using whole, unprocessed ingredients. Experiment with simple recipes to replace frozen meals or fast food options. It is overwhelming to learn to cook from scratch, but starting with one recipe per week can quickly add up to a whole new, wholesome menu in a couple of months. Opt for tinned pulses and frozen vegetables to make cost-conscious stews and soups.
Fresh foods like cucumber, carrots and celery are healthy alternatives to packaged snacks
Choose whole grain alternatives like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, or whole wheat bread instead of refined grain products like white bread and pastries. Get your children involved and make home-made carrot cake or applesauce muffins. Bake sourdough bread to share with your family.
Swap sugary soft drinks and fruit juices with infused water, herbal teas, or homemade smoothies made from fresh fruits and vegetables.
The non-diet approach
As a non-diet nutritionist, I don’t think anything should be avoided at all costs, as all kinds of food serve a purpose and have a place in a balanced diet. However, due to the many downsides of UPFs regarding health, it is best to keep consumption of UPFs to a minimum and opt for whole foods instead whenever possible.
It is also important to note that the health impact of UPFs can vary based on individual factors and overall dietary patterns. What your diet looks like most of the time, rather than occasional treats, can determine the impact it has on your health.
"Be mindful of the better options, but avoid strict restrictions, as this can negatively impact your relationship with food"
Check the nutrition label for a total amount of sugar, salt and saturated fat to be sure you are selecting a healthy product and opt for foods with short ingredient lists. Be mindful of the better options, but avoid strict restrictions, as this can negatively impact your relationship with food, which can lead to detrimental mental and physical health consequences.
The consumption of ultra-processed food substances has been associated with numerous adverse health effects. By understanding the impact of UPFs on our health, we can make informed decisions and adopt healthier alternatives. By promoting education, improved food labeling, industry reformulation, and supporting local food systems, we can collectively move away from UPFS consumption and embrace a healthier lifestyle.
Gabi Zaromskyte is a registered nutritionist and founder of Honestly Nutrition.
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