Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you like to eat a healthy diet. You’re probably interested in eating well and learning simple ways you can optimise your nutritional intake to support a long and healthy life. You likely make a concerted effort to minimise your intake of fast and takeaway food and know you should drink less alcohol.
What you may not know is that despite our best efforts, some commonly consumed supermarket foods that may look and sound healthy are actually ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been engineered to such an extent that many of their raw nutritional benefits are lost. With the regular consumption of ultra-processed foods now associated with an increased risk of developing a number of lifestyle diseases, including several types of cancer, it may be time to take a closer look at what is in your weekly grocery shop.
Processed versus ultra-processed foods
Most foods we enjoy are processed. Milk, for example, is homogenised and pasteurised so it is safe and palatable for consumption. Frozen vegetables have been processed, in that they are snap-frozen, which actually improves their nutritional profile. It isn’t food processing per se that we need to be worried about.
Rather, it is ultra-processed foods we should worry about. UPFs, as they are known, bear little to no resemblance to the original foods, and they are heavily engineered with additives, flavours, emulsifiers and colours to create a palatable form of chip, bar, sauce, ball or meal. They are developed with a range of ingredients you certainly would not find in your pantry at home.
The issue with ultra-processed foods is that the heavy processing generally means they offer far less nutritionally than a less processed alternative – less protein, less fibre, fewer vitamins – along with a lot more sugars, refined carbohydrates, refined fats and additives. Essentially, a nutrient mix that is not good for our long-term health.
As is the case with many areas of our diet, a little ultra-processed food here or there is no cause for concern. A packet sauce here or an occasional protein bar there, amid an otherwise healthy diet, will not cause too much harm. But when diets are packed full of ultra-processed foods, and there is a lack of nutritional density that comes from eating fresh, whole foods, then there is cause for concern.
Perhaps most concerning of all is that there are a number of ultra-processed foods that masquerade as “healthy”, so it is extremely useful to know some of the worst offenders.
A quick scan of the ingredient list of a standard packet of wraps will reveal a long list of emulsifiers, raising agents, preservatives and added fats and salts to create a soft, chewy, flour-based mix that remains soft for several days, if not weeks after purchasing. While wholegrain-based products do offer some dietary fibre, on the whole the majority of wraps available in supermarkets are ultra-processed, and nutritionally you would be much better off with a slice or two of wholegrain bread.
It should not come as a surprise that processed meat, including most deli meats, are ultra-processed foods. While 70 to 80 per cent of the product may have the protein base, the remainder consists of additives such as salts, nitrates and bulking agents to not only preserve the meat, but offer a less nutrient-dense alternative to meat, at a cheaper price. From a health perspective, there are a number of concerns with the regular consumption of processed meat, as the preservatives used are associated with an increased risk of cancers of the digestive tract. If you are partial to an occasional bacon and egg roll or ham and cheese toastie, aim to consume these foods no more than once or twice a week, ideally as part of a diet that is also filled with plenty of fresh food.
There are several reasons people may opt for a plant-based diet, but if improving your overall nutritional intake is one of your goals, you shouldn’t assume plant-based alternatives are “healthier”. It takes many colours, flavours and additives to make food that is not meat, chicken or fish look and taste like it is. Often plant-based alternatives are full of vegetable oils, processed carbs and loads of additives to create the consistency, taste and texture of meat, which not only means that they’re ultra-processed, but also that they rarely have a similar nutritional profile to the animal protein.
It may seem harmless enough to add a curry mix to your favourite meat and vegetables or a bottle of marinade to a family chicken dish, but most bottled sauces found in supermarkets are ultra-processed. A quick scan of an ingredient list of one of these sauces will reveal the bases tend to be sugar or vegetable oil along with a list of added thickeners, starches, flavours and colours we certainly do not need to add to home-cooked meals. For this reason, keeping your pre-made sauces to a minimum and using simpler flavour mixes such as soy, herbs and spices is a healthier way to enjoy flavour-packed meals.
While protein bars may have a place in an athlete’s diet or those with high-energy demands, the heavy, relatively expensive bars found in the health food section of supermarkets are certainly ultra-processed and not necessary in the diets of the average person. With a long ingredients list, it takes a lot of processing to make concentrated protein powder taste like a chocolate bar. They may sometimes be handy as an on-the-go snack for busy, active people, but the reality is that a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts is a much better option for most of us.
One of the defining aspects of ultra-processed foods is that they resemble very little of the foods they claim to be based on, and this could not be more true of the banana bread you find at many cafes. There is little that is healthy about commercially produced banana breads, which contain a lot of sugar and processed vegetable oil – and only about 20 to 30 per cent actual banana. It’s the extra oils, raising agents, colours and flavours that bump most commercially baked products into the ultra-processed category. So if you love banana bread, throw some brown bananas, butter, flour and milk together and enjoy the home-made variety.
While there are a handful of vegetable and legume-based chips that are made with little other than vegetables, salt and oil, there are also plenty that pack in MSG, flavours, anti-caking agents, sugars and salts, which transform legumes and vegetables into salty, crunchy, tasty snacks. Unfortunately, much of the nutrient content is destroyed as a result of this heavy processing. If you’re looking for a healthier chip, scan the packets for the shortest ingredient list.