Processed and in particular 'ultra-processed' (UPF) foods are understandably in the news a lot at the moment as part of the ongoing focus on ways of improving the UK diet. Evidence that a diet high in ultra-processed foods can lead to worse health outcomes is growing, and some processed foods, such as processed meat, have been specifically recognised for their negative impact on health.
It is clear that because many processed foods have significant added sugar, salt and fat, a diet containing too many will be less healthy than one which is mainly based on nutritious food staples like fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and healthy protein sources. This is particularly true where such unhealthy foods are eaten in place of healthier ones. However, it is less clear that the classification as ‘processed’, rather than the poor nutritional profile of these foods, is what means they should be avoided or only eaten in moderation.
The terms ‘processed food’ and ‘ultra-processed food’, often linked to the NOVA classification, are overly broad and ill-defined. Although the NOVA definitions are more detailed in their explanation, UPF are described as being any packaged food with more than five ingredients, including “ingredients you would not recognise.” We would argue this is an unhelpful simplification.
Many consumers would be surprised by what is defined as UPF and the potential impact of a trend towards ‘clean labels’. Using such a definition, even home-baked bread would be classified as an ultra-processed food if it were to use a fortified white flour – and that would be the case for any product containing flour as an ingredient. This despite the fact that such fortification ensures the bread replaces many of the nutrients lost in milling processes.
Because of these vague definitions, not enough is made of the difference between foods which can form a part of a healthy diet in moderation and may offer important nutrients, and those that are purely convenience foods or treats which should be eaten less often, and don’t form a part of a healthy diet. It also makes no differentiation between additives that might make a food safer or add nutrients, and those that are designed to enhance flavour, colour and palatability while adding nothing nutritionally.
Breakfast cereals offer another good example. In an ideal world we might all choose plain porridge oats with fresh fruit. However, some people will want to eat other cereals as part of a range of breakfast options, and there is clearly a great deal of difference between them in terms of their contribution to health. A bowl of bran flakes for example is as much a UPF as a chocolate rice cereal or cereal based on choc-chip cookies. This is despite the bran flakes being a good source of fibre and being fortified with numerous vitamins and minerals, and often being relatively low in added sugar.
Processing that preserves food such as tinning, freezing etc, is also something to be valued, especially as it is often a key means for those on lower incomes to eat a more varied diet. It is also a way for all of us to reduce food waste and its associated environmental impacts. It is important that we do not allow ‘processed’ to become a pejorative term when applied to foods such as this.
As we tailor our diets towards our individual values, health issues and lifestyles, there may be processed foods which supply useful alternatives and maintain choice in our meals. For example, this can be the case when choosing to reduce meat and dairy intake for a planetary diet, or needing to adopt a gluten free diet.
We’re certainly not recommending that eating a diet based largely around highly processed foods will optimise health and wellbeing. This is especially true when they do not provide satiety, are energy dense but nutrient poor, or contain additives which may impact negatively on the absorption of nutrients of the gut microbiome. Fundamentally, the BDA believes that looking at the nutritional profile of a food is more helpful than simply whether it is ‘processed’ or even ‘ultra-processed’.
Schemes such as the government traffic light labelling scheme or the “Nutri-score” model, both of which have been considered as part of the government’s front of pack labelling consultation, are designed to specifically take account of the fact that foods are often much more complex than simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Perhaps most importantly, even foods that do not play a role in good nutrition within the diet can be important in helping us enjoy food, or play an important cultural role. They may even be the only foods which can be easily found so it is important not to demonise foods, especially in broad strokes.
Public Affairs Manager, British Dietetic Association