Processed and ultra-processed foods – Why it’s time to say no

By Deborah Lee on June 17th, 2024

Salon staff are notoriously busy, and when lunchtimes are squeezed by late arrivals and last-minute bookings it’s all too easy to reach for a pre-packaged sandwich or a supermarket smoothie. But what’s actually in them, and are they doing us more harm than good? We asked Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy for the lowdown on healthy eating.

We know that to be healthy, we should all be eating a balanced, nutritionally complete diet. However, ultra-processed foods make up 54% of the average UK diet, and 10% comes from processed foods. We are not doing very well as only around a third of our diet comes from natural (unprocessed) sources.

What are processed and ultra-processed foods?

Processed food is any food that has been altered in some way before being sold or eaten. Sometimes, food processing is advantageous, for example, freezing or canning food to give it a longer shelf-life. 

But often, food processing is done by industrial mechanisms that strip the goodness out of the food and/or substances are added to food, to change the taste, texture or palatability. Some of these processes are harmful to human health.

Ultra-processed foods are those which have been industrially manufactured and you could not reproduce these foods in your own kitchen. If you read the food label and see five or more ingredients, this is likely to be an ultra-processed food.

Why are they so bad for our health?

Increased weight, raised cholesterol and blood glucose levels

Processed and ultra-processed foods are highly palatable and even addictive. The BBC Panorama programme recently featured an experiment which involved identical twin females. Aimee and Nancy each followed a different diet for two weeks. Aimee’s diet was high in ultra-processed food, but Nancy’s diet, which was identical in terms of fat, protein and carbohydrate, was made up of mostly natural and unprocessed foods.

After 2 weeks, Aimee had gained 1 Kg of weight and was found to have elevated blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Even in such a short space of time, a high consumption of processed food had significantly negatively impacted her health.

High-sugar foods are as addictive as nicotine and alcohol

Food specialists now believe the intake of sugar causes a rapid release of the feel-good hormone dopamine in the brain. A high sugar consumption leads to sugar addiction, in a similar way to becoming addicted to alcohol or nicotine. Sugar addiction may be a cause of the current UK obesity crisis.

Nutritional value is lower

Heating destroys vitamins and minerals. Any food that has to be prepared and heated up, such as a ready meal, will have a lower nutritional value. Steaming, grilling, stir-frying or microwaving food, rather than boiling, helps preserve the nutritional contents. 

White bread, rice and pasta are made from refined grains. This means that during the milling process, the outer portion of the grain is stripped off and removed. As a result, refined grains have a lower vitamin and mineral content than whole grains. Ditch the white foods and go for brown bread, rice and pasta. Choose the whole grain, unprocessed, option every time.

High-salt

More than 70% of the salt we eat comes from processed or restaurant food. On average, UK adults eat 8.4 g of salt per day, far higher than the recommended 6 g per day.  A high salt intake is a major cause of high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.

Lower the amount of salt in your diet. Choose low-salt options. Cook from scratch rather than having ready meals which tend to be high in salt – then you know what is in your food.

High-sugar

Men and women should only have a maximum of 9 or 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, respectively. However, the average UK adult has more than twice this amount. 

Sugar is hiding in so many foods. It may be listed as corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, fruit nectar, honey, agave or molasses. For example, one tablespoon of tomato ketchup contains one teaspoon of sugar. A high sugar intake increases the risk of obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Read the food labels. Choose the low-sugar options. Eat fresh. Cook from scratch. Note that natural sugars in fruits and vegetables are healthy. Snack on fruit rather than cakes, biscuits and chocolate which are high in added sugars.

High-fat and trans fats

Processed and ultra-processed foods are often high in unhealthy, saturated animal fat. They also contain trans fats that are unhealthy unsaturated fats, formed from the hydrogenation of vegetable oil, but also present in animal fat and dairy products. These have no nutritive value and clog up arteries. They are a major cause of death from cardiovascular disease. 

Trans fats are found in frozen pizza, deep-fried foods, chips, microwave popcorn, biscuits, pastries, doughnuts, cakes and desserts. Red meat – beef, pork and lamb – also contain trans fats.

You can avoid eating trans fats by not eating any of these processed or ultra-processed foods. Only eat butter in moderation. Look for food that contains healthy polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats such as olive, sunflower, rapeseed or avocado oil.

Food additives

Processed and ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients such as colouring agents, preservatives, emulsifiers, gelling, thickening agents, and sweeteners. Although these have been investigated and are generally believed to be safe for human consumption, in some cases, there are still concerns about the use of some of them, for example, emulsifiers and aspartame.

Other substances that can be harmful include glycerol (found in slushies), and caffeine. Pregnant women should be careful not to exceed an intake of more than 200 mg of caffeine a day. There is no safe level of caffeine intake for children under the age of 12.

Processed red meat contains high levels of nitrites which are used as a preservative. These include bacon, ham, salami, sausages and hot dogs. Eating a diet high in nitrites has been shown to increase the risk of bowel and other cancers.

You can avoid taking in any additives by avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods. UK adults should not eat any more than 500g of cooked meat per week. Choose high quality meat and cook it yourself from scratch. Try to go one or two days a week eating plant-based foods only.

Increased risk of death

In a 2019 Spanish study, eating 4 or more portions of ultra-processed food per day, increased all-cause mortality risk by 62%. For each 10% increment in eating ultra-processed food, the risk of death increased by 18%.

Increased cardiovascular risk

In a 2019 French study, involving 105, 159 participants followed up for 5 years, those with the highest intake of ultra-processed food had a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Public health officials have started to take steps to try and reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Increased cancer risk

In a 2023 study using data from the UK Biobank, the investigators found that the highest consumption of ultra-processed food was linked to the highest risk of cancer, especially brain and ovarian cancer. High ultra-processed food consumption also increased cancer deaths.

In conclusion

We eat processed and ultra-processed foods for a variety of reasons. They are often quick and easy, taste good and are relatively inexpensive. A diet high in processed and ultra-processed foods is likely to be nutritionally deficient as well as high in fat, sugar and salt.

But looking at the facts above, this is not a good way to live. These foods are linked to obesity, heart disease, stroke and cancer. 

You are what you eat – this is absolutely true. Your body is a finely tuned machine. It can only work as well as the fuel and nutrients you put inside it. Manufacturers make these products on purpose to tempt you to buy them. 

Deborah Lee

Having worked for many years in the NHS, initially as a GP, and then as Lead Clinician for an integrated Community Sexual Health Service, Dr Deborah Lee now works as a health and medical writer, with an emphasis on women's health and is s a menopause specialist.

All articles by Deborah Lee

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