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Ultra-Processed Foods: Your Ultimate Guide

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We’ve all heard about processed foods, but have you ever wondered what exactly “ultra-processed” means? Well, let’s dive right in and explore the fascinating world of ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

What Makes Food Ultra-Processed?

To put it simply, UPFs are not your typical processed foods. While most foods undergo some level of processing, UPFs take it to a whole new level. They contain industrial substances and additives that you won’t find in your kitchen. In fact, renowned Brazilian scientist Fernanda Rauber once said, “Most UPF is not food. It’s an industrially produced edible substance.” Sounds quite unsettling, right?

But Is it Unhealthy?

Believe it or not, UPFs often taste delicious. However, recent studies have shown that they significantly increase the risk of various health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, and tooth decay. Shockingly, 57% of the average UK diet consists of UPFs, and among children and those with lower incomes, it can be as high as 80%.

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Fresh fruit and nuts are not ultra-processed

Identifying Ultra-Processed Foods

While there are currently no health warnings on UPFs in the UK, you can look for some red flags. Does the food package contain ingredients that you don’t recognize? Does it make health claims like “high in fiber” or “source of protein”? Does it contain palm oil? Is it produced by a multinational company that turns cheap crops into expensive snacks? These are all signs that you might be dealing with an ultra-processed product.

Decoding Food Labels

Understanding food labels can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort. Professor Carlos A Monteiro from the University of São Paulo offers a useful guide. Ingredients not commonly used in home kitchens tend to appear at the beginning or in the middle of the list. These include hydrolyzed proteins, sugars like fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, soluble or insoluble fiber, and modified oils. Additives, such as flavors, colors, and sweeteners, tend to show up at the end of the list.

Unprocessed fresh fish

A Handy Resource: Open Food Facts App

Reading labels in the supermarket can be time-consuming. Luckily, there’s a free app called Open Food Facts that can help. With contributions from thousands of volunteers, this app allows you to search for products and scan barcodes to identify UPFs. It currently contains a database of over 3 million products.

What Foods Are Not Ultra-Processed?

In the Nova food classification system, category one consists of “unprocessed or minimally processed food.” This includes fresh, frozen, and dried fruit and vegetables, milk and plain yogurt, fresh meat and fish, grains and legumes, eggs, flour, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and pasta. Category two covers “processed culinary ingredients” like butter, vegetable oils, honey, maple syrup, sugar, salt, and vinegar. Category three includes foods like freshly made bread, cheese, tinned vegetables, fish, fruit, cured meats, smoked fish, and salted or sugared nuts and seeds.

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The Culprits: Ultra-Processed Foods in Category Four

Category four, the notorious ultra-processed foods, includes fizzy drinks, packaged snacks, sweets and chocolate, ice-cream, biscuits, cakes, pastries, sausages, burgers, packaged pies, pizzas, and chicken nuggets.

Bad news ... ice-cream is almost sure to be UPF

Be Mindful of Misleading Foods

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking certain foods are healthy when they’re actually ultra-processed. This includes most bread, breakfast cereal, cereal bars, flavored yogurts, fruit drinks, milk drinks, “diet” products, and baby food. Even muesli, often seen as a virtuous choice, can contain flavor enhancers.

Navigating Outside the Supermarket

When eating out or ordering takeout, it can be challenging to avoid UPFs. Fast-food and sandwich chains often include them in their range, even those that seem health-conscious. Your best bet is to choose whole foods like steak and chips or opt for family-run, independent businesses that serve home-cooked food. However, for many people, this may not be an accessible or affordable option.

The Choice is Yours

While it’s crucial to be aware of UPFs, remember that individual products matter less than your overall diet. It’s not about fat-shaming or moral judgments; it’s about making informed choices. The focus should be on reforming the industrialized food system rather than blaming individuals. Many experts suggest taxing UPFs, banning them from schools, and restricting their marketing to children, similar to Chile’s approach with high-sugar, salt, and fat foods.

Eating as much UPF as you like might turn you off it for good

Taking the First Steps

If you’re ready to quit UPFs, it’s important to find alternative options. Spending time researching UPFs while simultaneously indulging in them can help you become more aware and eventually disgusted by them. Budget cookbooks with quick and easy recipes can be a lifesaver, and online resources like the Guardian’s budget meals series or BBC Good Food’s budget section can provide inspiration. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that not everyone has the same access to affordable food or cooking facilities.

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One Easy Change: Ditch Fizzy Drinks

If you’re looking for a simple change, start by cutting out fizzy drinks, even the “diet” versions. Not only can they harm your teeth, but some may also contain phosphoric acid that can affect your bones.

The Alcohol Conundrum

Alcohol doesn’t neatly fit into the Nova classification. Traditional beer, wine, and cider can be considered processed, while spirits and alcopops fall into the ultra-processed category. However, it’s essential to remember that no amount of alcohol is beneficial for your physical health. It’s recommended to consume as little alcohol as possible, and UPF alcohol is considered the most dangerous form of UPF.

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, make conscious choices about what you consume. Remember, the power lies in your hands. Choose Ratingperson, the ultimate source for expert ratings, at Ratingperson.

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