Why you should avoid Ultra-processed food (UPF)

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Why food processing matters for our health?

The short answer: by eating UPFs as a normal part of your diet, you will be prone to several diseases and gain weight.

In 2019 the United Nations reviewed a large cohort of scientific literature of over 100 papers and experiments studying the effects of ultra processed foods (UPF) on health. The conclusion was it is very harmful for your health.

In 2014, the Brazilian government took the radical step of advising its citizens to avoid UPFs outright. The country was acting out of a sense of urgency, because the number of young Brazilian adults with obesity had risen so far and so fast, more than doubling between 2002 and 2013 (from 7.5% of the population to 17.5%). These radical new guidelines urged Brazilians to avoid snacking, and to make time for wholesome food in their lives, to eat regular meals in company when possible, to learn how to cook and to teach children to be “wary of all forms of food advertising

Back to the UN paper published in 2019 a short version of the findings can be summarized as per below:

“Taken together, the results from the studies on diet quality and health outcomes show plausible, significant and graded associations between the dietary share of ultra-processed foods and the occurrence or incidence of several diseases, including obesity and obesity-related outcomes, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, breast and all cancers, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, frailty in the elderly, and also premature mortality.

In the case of short-term increases in body weight and fat, this is solidly supported by the randomised controlled trial conducted by the US National Institutes of Health (Hall, et al., 2019).”


What is UPF?

credit: Katrina Wittkamp Getty

“Processed food” is a blurry term and for years, the food industry has exploited these blurred lines as a way to defend its additive-laden products. Unless you grow, forage or catch all your own food, almost everything you consume has been processed to some extent. A pint of milk is pasteurised, a pea may be frozen. Cooking is a process. Fermentation is a process. Artisanal, organic kimchi is a processed food, and so is the finest French goat’s cheese. No big deal.

But UPFs are different. They are processed in ways that go far beyond cooking or fermentation, and they may also come plastered with health claims. Even a sugary multi-coloured breakfast cereal may state that it is “a good source of fibre” and “made with whole grains”.

In 2010 the NOVA classification defined the extent of food processing in 4 categories with UPF being the highest processing one. The UN paper gives the following examples of UPFs:

Many ready-to-consume products such as carbonated soft drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; chocolate, candies (confectionery); ice-cream; mass-produced packaged breads and buns; margarines and other spreads; cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes, and cake mixes; breakfast ‘cereals’, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars; ‘energy’ drinks; milk drinks, ‘fruit’ yoghurts and ‘fruit’ drinks; ‘cocoa’ drinks; ‘instant’ sauces. Many pre-prepared ready-to-heat products including pies and pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish ‘nuggets’ and ‘sticks’, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and other reconstituted meat products; and powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts. Infant formulas, follow-on milks, other baby products; ‘health’ and ‘slimming’ products such as meal replacement shakes and powders.

The full table can be found on pages 11 & 12 of the UN paper published in 2019

How to Avoid UPFs


In Australia, Canada or the UK, to be told to avoid ultra-processed food – as the Brazilian guidelines do – would mean rejecting half or more of what is for sale as food, including many basic staples that people depend on, such as bread. The vast majority of supermarket loaves count as ultra-processed, regardless of how much they boast of being multiseed, malted or glowing with ancient grains.

Earlier this year, Monteiro and his colleagues published a paper titled “Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them”, offering some rules of thumb. The paper explains that “the practical way to identify if a product is ultra-processed is to check to see if its list of ingredients contains at least one food substance never or rarely used in kitchens, or classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing (‘cosmetic additives’)”. Tell-tale ingredients include “invert sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, lactose, soluble or insoluble fibre, hydrogenated or interesterified oil”. Or it may contain additives such as “flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners and anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents”.

But not everyone has time to search every label for the presence of glazing agents. A website called Open Food Facts, run by mostly French volunteers, has started the herculean labour of creating an open database of packaged foods around the world and listing where they fit into on the Nova system. Froot Loops: Nova 4. Unsalted butter: Nova 2. Sardines in olive oil: Nova 3. Vanilla Alpro yoghurt: Nova 4. Stéphane Gigandet, who runs the site, says that he started analysing food by Nova a year ago and “it is not an easy task”.

The low down – what to eat?

Photograph: Jochen Tack Alamy

The answer is actually pretty simple and you might have heard it again and again: cook your own food from scratch… or almost from scratch.

For as long as we believed that single nutrients were the main cause of poor diets, industrial foods could be endlessly tweaked to fit with the theory of the day. When fat was seen as the devil, the food industry gave us a panoply of low-fat products. The result of the sugar taxes around the world has been a raft of new artificially sweetened drinks. But if you accept the argument that processing is itself part of the problem, all of this tweaking and reformulation becomes so much meaningless window-dressing.

An ultra-processed food can be reformulated in countless ways, but the one thing it can’t be transformed into is an unprocessed food. Hall remains hopeful that there may turn out to be some way to adjust the manufacture of ultra-processed foods to make them less harmful to health. A huge number of people on low incomes, he notes, are relying on these “relatively inexpensive tasty things” for daily sustenance. But he is keenly aware that the problems of nutrition cannot be cured by ever more sophisticated processing. “How do you take an Oreo and make it non-ultra-processed?” he asks. “You can’t!”