Ultra-processed foods: what are the health risks?


Ultra-processed foods: what are the health risks?

Ultra-processed foods are everywhere these days. But what exactly are they? We explore the health risks and offer simple, heathier food swaps.

It’s hard to avoid processed foods. In fact, many everyday foods like dried herbs, canned fish and roasted nuts are processed in some way. Some processed foods are good for us, while others are best described as ‘sometimes’ foods.

Industrial food processing has developed new technologies and ingredients to produce foods that are highly palatable, cheap and convenient. These foods, known as ‘ultra-processed’ foods, contain ingredients you wouldn’t find in your pantry at home, and evidence shows they can be harmful to your health.

What is processed food?

The NOVA food processing classification system – developed by scientists in Brazil and promoted by the UN – categorises food according to the extent and purpose of the processing. Unprocessed foods like fruit or eggs sit at one end of the classification system and ultra-processed foods sit at the other, with processed foods like bread and cheese sitting somewhere in the middle.

“Ultra-processed foods contain additives such as antioxidants, stabilisers and preservatives, along with other ingredients, to make the food tastier and more appealing,” says accredited practising dietitian Christina Ross.

Ingredients you wouldn’t find in a household pantry like casein, whey protein, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin are tell-tale signs a food is ultra-processed.

Common examples of ultra-processed foods include sweet or savoury packaged snacks like doughnuts, margarines and spreads, ‘fruit juice’ drinks, instant sauces and pre-prepared pies, pasta and pizza dishes. 

Health risks of processed foods

When it comes to ultra-processed foods and health, it’s not good news. According to a 2020 review published in Nutrients, the more ultra-processed foods consumed in your diet, the higher your risk of obesity, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

A variety of factors are thought to contribute to these adverse health outcomes.

“Ultra-processed foods are formulated to be highly palatable, meaning they’re often rich in added sugars, fats, salts and other additives, and as a result are generally nutritionally unbalanced,” Christina says.

“This, coupled with attractive packaging, convincing marketing claims and ready-to-eat convenience, makes them very easy to overconsume while displacing less processed and more nutritious whole foods from the diet.”

Industrial processing itself can also be damaging to your health. Cancer-causing carcinogens can be formed during high-temperature cooking and certain food additives can disrupt your gut bacteria and trigger inflammation in the body, which is linked with an increased risk of disease.

Reducing your intake

Reading food labels is the easiest way to spot ultra-processed foods. “If you spot a lengthy ingredient list with multiple unrecognisable or unfamiliar ingredients, you’re likely looking at an ultra-processed food,” Christina says.

Generally speaking, the more removed a food is from its natural state, the less nutritionally valuable it is for you. Next, take a look at the use-by or best-before date – ultra-processed foods are designed to have a long shelf life.

So, while choosing ultra-processed foods can seem like an easy win when convenience is important, it’s worth taking the time to find a fresh alternative. And nothing beats the taste or packs the nutritional punch of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains like oats and rice.

10 healthy swaps for processed food

  1. Swap sweetened yoghurt for plain or Greek yoghurt
  2. Swap frozen pizza for homemade pizza dough with your favourite toppings.
  3. Swap chicken nuggets for homemade crumbed chicken.
  4. Swap frozen sweet-potato wedges for fresh sweet potato cut into wedges, sprinkled with paprika and baked in the oven.
  5. Swap diet soft drink for mineral water infused with a squeeze of lime or lemon.
  6. Swap sugary breakfast cereals for rolled oats.
  7. Swap sausages for lean red meat.
  8. Swap potato chips for air-popped popcorn.
  9. Swap mayonnaise for avocado or cottage cheese.
  10. Swap muesli bars for mixed nuts.

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Words by Caitlin Reid
This article first appeared in the March 2021 edition of Health Agenda magazine.

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