Food & Diet

Ultra-Processed Foods Are Not Good For You. Here’s Why

Besides being harmful, processed foods are also unnecessary for human nutrition.

Ultra processed foods

The mantra 'eat less processed food' is often heard, but what does it really mean? In fact, World Obesity Federation has predicted that more than 27 million children in India may suffer from obesity by 2030.

Industrial food processing has created new technologies and ingredients to create highly palatable, inexpensive, and convenient foods. It is believed that these 'ultra-processed' foods can be harmful to your health, as they are filled with ingredients you couldn't find in your own pantry.

What are processed foods?

According to the NOVA classification system for food processing, developed by Brazilian scientists and promoted by the UN, foods are classified based on how much and why they are processed.  A classification system places unprocessed foods at one end and ultra-processed foods at the other, such as bread and cheese.

To make the food tastier and more appealing, ultra-processed foods contain additives such as antioxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives, as well as other ingredients like casein, whey protein, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and maltodextrin on the label, these are indications that a food has been ultra-processed. Among them are sweet or savoury packaged snacks, such as doughnuts, butter, spreads, fruit juice drinks, noodles, pre-cooked food, dishes, etc.  

Health risks of processed foods

It's not good news when it comes to ultra-processed foods and health. Experts believe that the more ultra-processed foods you eat, the greater your risk of obesity, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. However, a number of factors are thought to play a role in these negative health outcomes.

Ultra-processed foods are intended to be extremely palatable, which means they're frequently high in added sugars, fats, salts, and other additives, and are thus nutritionally unbalanced. This, combined with appealing packaging, persuasive marketing claims, and ready-to-eat convenience, makes them very easy to overconsume, displacing less processed and more nutritious whole foods from the diet.

Industrial processing can also be harmful to your health. High-temperature cooking can produce carcinogens, and certain food additives can disrupt gut bacteria and cause inflammation in the body, which is linked to an increased risk of disease.

The simplest way to identify ultra-processed foods is to read food labels. If you notice a long ingredient list with several unrecognisable or unfamiliar ingredients, you're probably looking at ultra-processed food.

In general, the further a food is from its natural state, the less nutritionally valuable it is for you. Next, look at the use-by or best-before date - ultra-processed foods are made to last a long time.

So, while ultra-processed foods may appear to be an easy win when convenience is important, it's worth taking the time to find a fresh alternative. Nothing beats the flavour or nutritional value of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains like oats and rice.

A list of 10 healthy food swaps for processed foods

  1. Replace sweetened yoghurt with plain or Greek yoghurt

  2. Replace frozen pizza for homemade pizza with your favourite toppings.

  3. Replace chicken nuggets with homemade crumbed or fried chicken.

  4. Replace frozen potato wedges or fries with freshly cooked potato wedges and fries,  baked in the oven with some paprika.

  5. Replace diet soda with mineral water infused with a squeeze of lime or lemon.

  6.  Replace sugary cereals with rolled oats.

  7.  Replace frozen meats with fresh or lean red meat.

  8.  Replace potato chips with home-cooked popcorn.

  9.  Replace the mayonnaise with cottage cheese.

  10.  Replace muesli bars with mixed nuts.

Upon Reflection

There is clearly something about ultra-processed foods that causes people to consume more of them without even realising it. The consequences of eating ultra-processed foods are obvious. The reasons for the effects are unknown, but it would be nice to know why. Until we find out, it's best to avoid eating ultra-processed foods or eat them in small amounts.