You might’ve noticed the term ‘ultra-processed foods’ mentioned over the last few years, as interest is increasing in the quality of the foods we eat. There’s still some confusion though over what ultra-processed foods actually are. Most foods you eat are likely processed in some way: when we cook at home, or when foods are made into other products such as bread or yoghurt we have to process the raw ingredients to make the final product. So there’s no need to avoid all processed foods, but if your diet includes a substantial amount of foods that are highly processed and that contain unnecessary additives, this may have a negative impact on your health.
How do I know if it's ultra-processed?
Ultra-processed foods often go through several stages of processing, using methods that you’re not normally able to reproduce at home, which degrades the ingredients to components that are unrecognisable from the whole foods which they came from. They’re then reconstructed into food products, and sugars, fats, salt or other additives such as flavour enhancers, preservatives, colours or even artificial vitamins or minerals are added. This makes the final product more attractive and pleasing to your tastebuds.
Many of us are consuming too much, including kids
These types of foods make up an increasingly large proportion of our diets, currently ranging from 40% in Australia and 50% in New Zealand, to 60% in Norway. A recent study of children from eight countries including Australia found an association between ultra-processed foods and increased energy and sugar intake, and reduced fibre intake - which suggests these foods may play a central role in childhood obesity. According to the study, ultra-processed foods made up 47% of the diet of children aged 2-5 years, increasing to 54% in adolescents aged 12-19 years.
Ultra-processed foods can impact our health
Because ingredients are broken down extensively during processing, ultra-processed foods act differently in your body during digestion. Sugars, for example, are more rapidly absorbed from these foods compared with sugars that are naturally present in fruit or in whole grains, as fibre helps slow absorption. Some research also suggests ultra-processed foods may negatively impact the gut microbiota, and contribute to inflammatory gut diseases. High palatability from the ”perfect” combination of fats, sugars and salt also mean they’re easy to overconsume. It's also more difficult to feel full when eating ultra-processed foods, and they can produce a higher blood sugar response and increase your risk of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer. One trial found that participants eating an ultra-processed diet ate ~500 additional calories per day and gained on average 1kg in weight compared with those eating an unprocessed diet.
Based upon the increasing evidence, several countries have re-evaluated their dietary guidelines and shifted focus towards healthy dietary patterns and the quality of foods, rather than upon individual nutrients.
How can you reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods?
Become aware of the different types of foods and choose minimally processed alternatives whenever you can. Making most of your meals yourself is the easiest way to ensure you’re eating mostly minimally processed foods.
If you do buy packaged or processed foods, check the ingredients and nutrition information panel – these can give you a good idea whether the product is an ultra-processed food. You can find a link to my label reading tips sheet (and a handy wallet card) here.
Be aware that it’s not just “junk” foods that are ultra-processed - many other foods can fall into this category, including sauces, packet soups, some muesli bars and cereals, and meal replacement or nutritional supplements. Again, checking labels can help you compare options to choose healthier alternatives.