Ultra-processed food – is it really that bad for us?

Consuming junk food as fried foods hamburgers soft drinks leading to health risks as obesity and diabetes as fried foods that are high in unhealthy fats on a white background with 3D illustration elements.

For many of us who are time poor and cannot face cooking from scratch at the end of a long day at work, ready meals and other convenience foods can feel like a godsend. However, many of these types of food fall into the category of “ultra-processed”, and more and more research is showing that ultra-processed food products are associated with a range of different adverse effects on health.

Food is generally placed into one of four categories, depending on the level of processing it has been exposed to during the production process:

1. Unprocessed or minimally processed – those consumed with little or no alteration from their natural state, e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts, meat and fish;

2. Processed ingredients – foods that are derived from those in group 1 by way of pressing, grinding, drying, etc., and are usually used in seasoning rather than eaten by themselves, e.g. olive oil, salt, sugar and honey;

3. Processed foods – foods that are created by embellishing foods from group 1 with those from group 2, often used in home cooking or for the purposes of extending shelf life, e.g. jam, cheese, ham, salted nuts and fruit in syrup;

4. Ultra-processed foods – foods with multiple ingredients often including many additives, artificial colours and flavours, and few, if any, foods from group 1, e.g. sausages, plant-based meat alternatives, breakfast cereals and carbonated drinks.

A 2019 study from Spain following over 19,000 people found that people who consumed more than four servings of ultra-processed food per day were a shocking 62% more likely to have died after an average of ten years than those who consumed fewer than two servings per day. Ultra-processed foods contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt, which on their own contribute to the risk of diabetes, weight gain and high blood pressure, but more recent research seems to suggest that the processing itself is also harmful. As we discussed back in April 2023, the health benefits appear be greatest when following a Mediterranean diet, which includes many foods from group 1 and few from group 4.

Click here to read a recent review of studies looking into the associations between ultra-processed foods and adverse health outcomes.

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