Processed foods: what you need to know
Consumption of ‘ultra-processed foods’ is at a record 50% here in the UK according to a recently published Europe-wide study. The link between consumption of processed foods and obesity was also confirmed.
It’s long been speculated that our consumption of hyper palatable, highly processed foods is in part to blame for the increasing rates of obesity across the UK and it seems that, finally, we have good evidence to back this up. Data collected over 17 years from consumer shopping habits in 19 countries across Europe was used to estimate the percentage of processed foods available to each household, with a whopping 50% of the energy from foods we buy in the UK coming from foods that are ‘ultra-processed’.
With obesity being linked to a broad range of health complications including heart disease, joint conditions and cancer, it is vital that we shift our food choices to include more single, natural and unprocessed foods.
Understanding what a processed food is (man-made rather than nature made)
The classification of a processed food is a difficult one, as many foods are processed in one way or another. Simply by picking fruit from a tree, you are processing it, and by chopping it up, you are processing it further; however, the NOVA classification of food processing has been used in this study, and uses a direct definition of the word ‘processed’ to encompass how the food is modified from its natural state. The NOVA classification groups food into four different categories: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are the ideal foods that we should be eating more of. These foods exist in nature, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, salad leaves, legumes, grains, eggs, milk, water, meat, fish and seafood, spices and herbs, and have undergone minimal processing (if any) to extend the life of the food, such as grinding (e.g. seeds), filtering (e.g. water), pasteurisation (e.g. milk), refrigeration or freezing (to maintain freshness) and so on. In other words, these are the foods your grandmother would cook with and eat.
Processed culinary ingredients are foods from the first category with added ingredients (such as salt, sugar, vegetable oils, starches and so on), which are also obtained in nature (via processing methods) to prepare home-made dishes from foods in the first category. Again, these are the foods that the average home cook would have added to their homemade meals to make them super tasty.
Processed foods use foods from the first category but add processed foods from the second category, for the purpose of enhancing the flavour of the food item, or increasing their longevity, and therefore contain 2-3 ingredients. Examples would include items that have been canned, bottled, cured or smoked, as well as freshly made bread. These foods would certainly appear in the ‘cooking from scratch’ kitchen, but would be used in moderation.
The final category, ultra-processed foods, would never have been found in grandma’s kitchen. These include foods with extracts from other foods, e.g. lactose and whey, additives such as dyes, colours, artificial sweeteners and flavours, and other processed items such as bulking agents and anti-caking agents. Basically, if it’s advertised on TV, it falls into this category.
Why are we over-eating processed foods? Advertising? Time constraints? Convenience?
Now that we have established what an ‘ultra-processed’ food is, we need to understand why we’re eating so much of it. When we consider that £143 million was spent on advertising by ‘ultra-processed’ food manufacturers such as Cadburys and Coca-Cola in 2016, is it really a surprise that 50% of the diet here in Britain consists of these ‘ultra-processed’ foods? Not only is clever advertising building an emotional attachment to these foods, with artificial sweeteners and flavourings added, they are designed to be delicious, enhancing the flavour of their unprocessed ingredients. Then we have working families who struggle to ensure the children get to school on time, as well as to after-school classes and play-dates, whilst also maintaining a full-time job and keeping a home. Not only can it be difficult to set aside the time to cook three healthy homemade meals from scratch every day, there’s also the resistance from children who are targeted most heavily by the advertising of many ultra-processed foods. When we consider that the health advertising budget of the government is around £5 million per year, just 3% of that from ultra-processed food manufacturers, are we simply not educated enough on nutrition as a nation? Ability to cook, formed habits, availability of ultra-processed foods and budget are further factors, all leading to a recipe for further obesity – we have simply forgotten how to eat real food.
A step-by-step guide to reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods
As we have established, there are many reasons for the consumption of ultra-processed foods. All of these will apply to some people, whilst others may only be affected by one reason. Either way, there are many steps you can take to reduce your consumption of these foods and to return to eating a diet of single ingredients that will nourish you and put you on the path to optimal health.
If time is of the essence
Cooking from scratch can be quite time consuming; however, there are many things out there that make life nice and simple. Kitchen tools such as a blender and a slow cooker can save lots of time. Blend some fresh berries, fresh green leafy vegetables, avocado or coconut oil for healthy fats and – to create a creamy texture – a dollop of fresh natural yoghurt, nuts or protein powder, with some water or milk and you have made a delicious, healthy smoothie for breakfast. Protein powder is, technically, an ultra-processed food; however, choosing an unflavoured powder will often mean that there are no added artificial sweeteners and flavours. Companies such as Pulsin’ and Purition offer protein powders with no artificial sweeteners added. To save even more time, you can purchase frozen smoothie packs from most supermarkets, containing a mixture of fruit and vegetables pre-chopped.
A slow cooker is a convenient way to put together a healthy meal with very little input required other than finding a recipe and buying the ingredients. To help you along, you can find plenty of healthy slow-cooker recipes online from sites such as 100daysofrealfood.com, and whilst food shopping can be time-consuming, almost all supermarkets now offer home delivery, with online fresh food providers such as Ocado and Abel & Cole delivering fresh ingredients straight to your door. Many supermarkets now even offer chopped foods for you – which may be worth spending a little extra cash on if time is your hurdle. Slow-cooking a large meal will feed the whole family, or for fewer people, can prepare several meals.
If budget is a factor
Buying ‘healthy food’ is often considered more expensive than unhealthy foods but this is not always true. Many ultra-processed foods can actually be more expensive than unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Feeding a family at McDonald’s, for example, would cost more than purchasing beef mince, fresh buns, salad and potatoes and preparing your own burger and chips meal. Similarly, buying a ready meal at the supermarket would cost more per serving than buying the raw ingredients and making it yourself. Even chocolate can be ‘assembled’ at home and may be cheaper per serving than buying an ultra-processed chocolate bar. It should be acknowledged that there is likely to be a higher up-front cost to purchase all of the raw ingredients to make the same foods; you may, for example, need many herbs and spices to make a recipe taste as delicious as a ready meal, but once you have them in the cupboard, you can use them in many meals. You can further cut costs by buying in bulk; this applies to meat, dried beans, pulses and rice, spices, herbs and oils, so plan ahead and buy the foods you eat often in bulk. Whilst dried beans will last for a long time, meat will have to be used a lot quicker, but freezing the meat you are unlikely to eat before the expiry date will save on waste. Growing your own food is another cost effective way to eat healthy foods. You don’t have to invest in your own greenhouse – simply growing your own herbs on your windowsill will suffice, giving you flavour at the swish of a knife, as well as providing a nice warm feel to your kitchen.
To further reduce costs, become familiar with the hours when your local supermarket reduces food prices, it tends to be later in the evening when the food is still edible but needs using up quickly. Looking for bargains to bag often provides you with inspiration for your next meal.
If convenience is a driver
Many people have demanding lifestyles and even finding the time to stop ‘doing’ and eat can feel like an inconvenience in itself, meaning that food on-the-go from local coffee shops is often the quickest way to fuel-and-go. If this sounds like you, we have many tips and insights on how to ensure you choose the healthiest foods when eating out here, covering coffee shops, healthy fast foods and ready meals. Whilst many of these options ultimately lead to ultra-processed foods, fortunately, the world is evolving and there are much ‘cleaner’ foods becoming more readily available.
Other options to consider include subscription boxes. With companies such as Graze offering healthy snack boxes delivered to your door, and supermarkets taking the lead from companies such as Hello Fresh and Abel & Cole providing menu boxes complete with a recipe and all of the ingredients you need to create a delicious and healthy meal, there has never been a more convenient way to put together a healthy meal. It should be pointed out, though, that, whilst very useful for those who choose this option, this is not the cheapest way to provide tasty and healthy meals.
If food waste is a problem
Ultra-processed foods often contain many preservatives to help keep them fresher for longer, meaning you can purchase ready-made foods and store them for weeks, months or even longer without ever having to worry about them expiring. Be honest, though – how often do you have a clear-out only to find that there are cans in your pantry that are years past their sell by date and once you’ve thrown them all out, the cupboards seem empty again. Yes it’s convenient to have these foods ‘just in case’ but with a little preparation, you can eat fresher, minimally processed foods and reduce your food waste. Writing a shopping list ahead of your trip to the supermarket is a sure fire way to ensure you only purchase the foods you need. If you plan your meals ahead of time, you can ensure that you purchase the correct amount of ingredients to ensure they last until your next shop. Batch-cooking is a great way to prepare several meals in one go with any unused meals being frozen for a time when you need the convenience of a ready-made meal and you can be sure it’s free of ultra-processed foods. Freezing meats and fish and vegetables such as spinach is another way to reduce food waste if you know you won’t use it before it expires. This website provides a list of foods that can be easily frozen.
When the kids rule the roost
It can be difficult for parents when children are fussy eaters, or exposed to the advertising tricks of ultra-processed foods so, in order to change their views, it’s time to get inventive. Getting your children involved with food preparation, such as cracking eggs, can be a fun and enjoyable way for children to feel involved in food choices and understanding where it comes from. Educating children and introducing a variety of foods from a young age can have a positive effect. This webpage has more tips to help persuade junior fussy eaters.
If you simply can’t resist ultra-processed foods
Yes, they’re everywhere and yes, they do taste delicious but simply put, over-eating ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity which is not good for your health. If you simply cannot resist a McDonalds cheeseburger, instead of feeling like you can no longer eat them, try reducing the frequency of eating them. Set a goal you feel is achievable; even reducing your intake by half will have a positive effect on your health. Why not put the money you would have spent on ultra-processed foods to one side and save up for something special to treat yourself for the hard work and dedication. Better yet, instead of reaching for your favourite instant foods, set yourself a goal of learning how to make it yourself. A quick search of the internet will provide you with all the information you need.
Try setting yourself a goal of eating all the good stuff before you eat all the bad stuff (if you’ve any space left). Ensure you eat three meals per day, meeting your recommended daily intake of protein from minimally processed sources, consume 5 portions of minimally processed vegetables and up to 2 portions of minimally processed fruits, eat healthy fats from unrefined oils, butter, nuts, seeds and oily fish, and a handful of healthy carbohydrates with each meal from quinoa, brown rice, sweet potato or legumes. You might be surprised at how satisfied you feel from eating foods that are naturally higher in protein and fibre to increase the feeling of fullness and reduce the risk of over-eating. If you do still feel hungry or yearning for those ultra-processed foods once you have hit your goals for the day, then allow yourself to have a reasonable amount, aiming for the 80:20 rule. This way you can ensure that you are eating well but still gaining the satisfaction of the foods you love. The 80:20 rule may mean that 20% of your meal contains ultra-processed foods such as a sauce to cook your ingredients in, or a piece of chocolate after your meal, or you may wish to have an ultra-processed meal for every 4 minimally processed meals you have. Put the focus on the healthy foods you eat rather than feeling guilty about the ultra-processed foods; reducing your intake from 50% to 20% is a big step and you are not expected to do it overnight – simply set yourself small, achievable goals.
Can’t cook, won’t cook?
Unless you like eating raw ingredients, an inability to cook can make eating minimally processed foods difficult. Again, there has never been more information available. Whether you purchase a book, loan it from the library, use YouTube videos, TV shows or attend a class, you can pick up the basics of cooking pretty quickly. No one expects you to produce Michelin star foods so don’t feel the pressure to make it aesthetically pleasing as well; food presentation will improve over time. Once you have the basics covered, purchasing menu boxes, as discussed above, will provide you with all the ingredients and instructions to create your delicious meals. Confidence comes with practice, and whilst some people pick up a flair for foods pretty quickly, some simply cannot create a dish without following a recipe, and fortunately enough, there have never been more recipes to choose from, many of which focus on healthy, homemade, minimally processed foods.
And when you simply don’t know where to begin…
Sometimes it can be daunting to start considering changing your eating habits, not knowing which parts of your diet are letting you down, not knowing what the healthier choices are, and simply not knowing what to do with foods you’ve never used before. To keep it simple, start small – no one expects you to overhaul your diet overnight. Start by becoming aware of the foods you are already consuming. Notice how many of the foods you eat contain labels and how many are just a raw ingredient. Read the labels of the foods you often purchase; if you notice that they contain many ingredients you’ve never heard of, seek out a healthier alternative for the next time you purchase it or have a go at making it yourself from scratch. Focus on all the unprocessed foods you eat and allow yourself to feel proud of eating these foods rather than feeling guilty for the ultra-processed foods that you do still eat. Another useful way to look at your food is to consider its colour. If you are eating a rainbow of food colours, it is likely that you are eating a wide range of unprocessed foods (unless they are artificially coloured), but if your diet is mainly dull, beige colours, think of ways to add naturally bright-coloured food. This infographic from wholekidsfoundation.org is a fun way for children to become familiar with eating brightly coloured foods, but is just as useful for adults.
There are so many resources out there to broaden your knowledge of nutrition but instead of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information, start with something you are interested in. If you enjoy sweet treats, consider making your own using unrefined ingredients rather than purchasing a ready-made ultra-processed cake. Similarly, if you drink a lot of carbonated drinks, look at healthier alternatives such as reducing your intake by half, and swapping to mineral water, perhaps even adding berries or citrus fruits for some additional flavour. By taking small steps, you’ll soon become more aware of the food you eat and notice that all the small changes you have made have added up to a bigger change over time that your body will thank you for.
Final motivational thoughts
Whilst it can be overwhelming to think that the habits you have formed over the years may not be the healthiest, don’t let this put you off. Consider the number one reason we eat food – to fuel the body in order to function. It really is as simple as that. Whilst our taste buds and emotional ties can lead us to favour less healthy foods, ultimately, we need to eat well in order to feel well. Real foods that are not highly processed contain a lot more nutrients than foods that are considered ‘ultra-processed’, and will therefore provide more fire for the body to function optimally. Not many people get out of bed every day feeling refreshed and revitalised, with a clear head and motivation to achieve everything we set out to do (sounds great, doesn’t it), but good nutrition is the foundation of good health and will lead you on the right path to achieving that feel good factor. Making informed and educated decisions, and being aware of what you eat, is a better place to start your journey to good health than any gooey piece of chocolate cake.
- Monteiro, C., Moubarac, J., Levy, R., Canella, D., Louzada, M., & Cannon, G. (2018). Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries. Public Health Nutrition, 21(1), 18-26.
- Monteiro CA, Cannon G, Levy RB et al. (2016) NOVA. The star shines bright. [Food classification. Public health] World Nutrition, 7(1-3), 28-38.
If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.