If you’ve seen a single TV show, article, or TikTok that so much as mentions diet, you’ll probably have heard of ‘ultra-processed’ foods.
The term refers to foods like ice cream, cereal, and even foods we might not think of as highly processed – “Everyday items such as breakfast cereals and mass-produced or packaged bread can be considered ultra-processed foods,” say the British Heart Foundation.
And while people have had concerns bout the health effects of highly-processed foods for a while now (the British Medical Journal found “positive associations between consumption of highly processed (“ultra-processed”) foods and risk of cardiovascular disease and death” in 2019), a new Panorama episode on the topic promises to unveil further terrifying truths about our favourite snacks.
So what’s so bad about ultra-processed foods?
Well, first of all, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) says that “higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (more than 4 servings per day) was associated with a 62% increased risk of all-cause mortality compared with lower consumption (less than 2 servings per day.”
And regarding the upcoming Panorama episode, Tim Spector, a professor of epidemiology at King’s College London, says that ”In the last decade, the evidence has been slowly growing that ultra-processed food is harmful for us in ways we hadn’t thought. We’re talking about a whole variety of cancers, heart disease, strokes, dementia.”
A French study found that a “10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with significantly higher rates of overall cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease (increase of 12%, 13%, and 11% respectively).
But the British Medical Journal (BMJ) says that ultra-processed foods “are thought to account for around 25-60% of daily energy intake in many countries.”
In the Panorama episode, twins who were put on ultra-processed and less-processed diets had very different outcomes – despite eating the same amount of calories.
“Her identical twin, Nancy, was also on a diet containing the same amount of calories, nutrients, fat, sugar and fibre - but she was consuming raw or low-processed foods,” report the BBC.
“Aimee gained nearly a kilo in weight – Nancy lost weight. Aimee’s blood sugar levels also worsened and her blood fat levels – lipids – went up.”
We’re not sure exactly what it is about processed foods that affect us so much
The British Heart Foundation says that “The classification of ultra-processed foods used by the researchers is very broad and so there could be a number of reasons why these foods are being linked to increased risk to our health, for example nutritional content, additives in food or other factors in a person’s life.”
And even though the BMJ say that “previous studies have linked ultra-processed foods to higher risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some cancers,” they add that “firm evidence is still scarce.”
“The actual processing of the food could also make a difference to how our bodies respond to it. Studies have shown, for example, that when foods such as nuts are eaten whole the body absorbs less of the fat than when the nut is ground down and the oils are released. Another new theory is that diets higher in ultra-processed foods could also affect our gut health,” suggest the British Heart Foundation.
Still, we’re not completely sure why they’re so bad for us.
Right. So… am I never meant to eat a Mars bar again, then?
I’d never suggest such a thing – and nor, it seems, would the British Heart Foundation.
“It might sound like we should go back to eating only foods that are minimally processed, but with restricted time and budget, this isn’t an option for most of us. As we don’t know yet how ultra-processed foods affect our health, it’s also not clear that it’s necessary to completely exclude them,” they say.
Instead, they say balance is key – “Instead of trying to completely cut out these foods, think about the balance in your diet,” they suggest.
“Make sure that there are minimally processed foods in there too – eat fruit and vegetables with your meals and drink water instead of sugary drinks – and try to fit in time over the week for home cooking.”
The British Heart Foundation add that some food is better for you than others: they list wholegrain bread, baked beans, and cereals as healthier processed options.
Their senior dietician Victoria Taylor says that “We already recommend people adopt a Mediterranean-style diet, which includes plenty of minimally or unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils and wholegrains.”
I think I can take those orders...